The Game of Master Hog: Part Twelve
Sweat ran down his face as he struck again, punch after punch hammering against the black flames of his foe to little effect. Muscles strained as he pushed them to their limits, summoning every scrap of strength he could muster and throwing it into another attack, catching the Draik hard across the snout and pushing him back. Snarling viciously the Spectre just reeled back into action, sharp claws cutting across Judge Hog's chest and tearing a fresh gash across his tattered remains of his once splendid uniform. Panting heavily he pulled back from Quai's reach before a second blow could fall and allowed himself a moment's respite.
He was losing this fight.
'This fight is pointless,' Quai said softly, nursing his aching snout with one hand. 'Admirable, but pointless. Judge Hog, no matter how much you try, you will not defeat me. It took an army to bring the Spectre of Lord Darigan to his knees and the power of the orb itself to stop him. Neopia's greatest hero you may be, but you are still just one pet, without the Orb of Darigan to support you. Even if you were to somehow stop me, you cannot stop the Citadel's destruction, not now. Continuing this battle is futile.'
'While there is still even the slightest chance of beating you, this battle is anything but futile,' Judge Hog snarled back.
Fuelled by anger at Quai's audacity, he lunged into attack once more. The Draik did not even bother to resist as the first punch fell hard against his stomach, Judge Hog following through with a forceful uppercut that threw Quai back into the air. He was given no time for triumph however, as almost immediately the black flames twisted and contorted in the still air, Quai's body moving through unnatural patterns to stand before the Moehog again. Abruptly a clawed hand shot out and closed about his throat, lifting him bodily from the floor. He felt what remained of his fighting spirit dwindling away.
'Shall I tell you a story?' Quai said calmly, leaning close until he could whisper in Judge Hog's ear. 'The very last thing Master Hog said to me, the very last thing he says to anybody before a mission, was "Don't kill Judge Hog". Do you know why that is?'
Roughly he cast his foe to the ground, the unforgiving stones finishing what the choking black flames started. All Judge Hog could muster in response was a pained groan.
'I had often wondered myself,' Quai continued in his soft whisper, the sound echoing through the silence, 'just what had you done to make him hate you so? What would it take to force someone like Master Hog to hate you so much he wants the satisfaction of finishing you himself? I never could understand it, no matter how hard I thought. And yet now, now I finally realise this is not hate he feels for you. This is something so much more dangerous, so much more powerful, I am surprised I never understood it before.'
Helpless, Judge Hog watched as Quai approached, the spectral black flames gathering in his hand and stretching into a shape of a slender sword, its blade lined with the searing edge of purest heat. He paused standing over the weary Moehog, the intensity of the heat washing over him where he lay.
'You see it too. I can see it your eyes, the exact same feeling he has for you. There is no hate in you for him, even after everything he has done. Why is that? Consider it a dying pet's last request, to know the truth about his employer.'
The truth. Nothing remained of truth in Master Hog, his very identity a disguise to hide it. Just like Judge Hog; little more than a blue Moehog always behind a mask. The truth?
'He wants me kept alive for one reason, and one reason alone,' Judge Hog whispered, slowly pushing himself off the floor. Every movement was a struggle, but each struggle brought with it new strength, new energy from the very core of his being. One reason kept Master Hog from sending Kribal to have him assassinated, one reason to keep sending him riddles, one reason to play the ridiculous game he had invented with Neopia itself as their staging board. One reason to give him the strength to fight his oldest adversary every step of the way.
'He keeps me alive because I'm the only one who can stop him!'
New power surged life into Judge Hog's arms as he threw himself at Quai, a single punch sending the dark Spectre staggering back helplessly. 'You were wrong before Quai, it was not the power of an army that brought down Darigan, nor was it the magic of your lost orb; it was the strength and the courage of one pet prepared to stand against him, prepared to lay down everything to stop that monster. One pet with the power to stand against the darkness itself. Well we watched that fight all those years ago, and we learned what it meant to stand alone against the dark, because we have always known the truth Quai: Darigan was given that power by a dark orb in a lost shrine a very long time ago, with you standing beside him. We always hoped it would never happen, but we've always known you had the power within you, and we made sure we were ready to fight it.'
'I will not let you stand against the Darigan people!' Quai roared, lunging forward with sword aloft. Fiercely he brought it crashing down against Judge Hog, the dark flames hissing in delight.
Azure flames swept about the Moehog's forearms as the sword struck. Judge Hog pushed back hard, separating them for one final attack, both pets throwing every ounce of strength into a single blow. Roaring black flames met vibrant blue, magic sparking wildly in the air between them.
The sword shattered. Quai gasped as the flames subsided before his eyes, unable to withstand the raw power carried in Judge Hog's fist. Triumphantly the Moehog pushed through, magically charged punch connecting firmly with Quai's chest. The Draik cried out as he was lifted from his feet again, the power he had relished to greatly exploding from every part of his body, azure flames banishing the dark tongues that had enveloped him.
Immediately the world erupted with sound, the roars and shrieks of failing engines wailing thick with the anguished cries of bursting pipes and exploding connections. The Darigan Citadel itself screamed in agony, the last of the Spectre's magic finally failing to let it be heard once more in all its terrible glory.
Letting the magic go, Judge Hog rushed to the side of the Draik slumped against the wall. His scales were stained black from where the Spectre had held him so long, his face wan and broken as his body struggled against the sudden release. Desperately Judge Hog tried to shake him awake, calling him back. Slowly one red eye opened, bringing with it a faint rasp for air.
'It's over, Quai,' Judge Hog cried over the roar of the dying Citadel, 'the Spectre's gone. I need you to tell me how to stop this place exploding!'
To his surprise Quai started to laugh, slow and sickly, but unmistakeably the sound of laughter. 'I told you... I was in control... you have... failed... Judge Hog. For all your efforts... the Citadel... will fall.'
'There must be a way to stop it! I can get you out of here, Quai, I can protect you from him! Just tell me what to do!'
There, for the most fleeting of moments, visible only to those who knew what to look for, Quai's eyes flickered. Desperately Judge Hog followed it, his eyes resting on a heavy lever set into the central control console, miraculously spared Quai's first assault. Beside it in angular print were the words "Blast Doors". There was no way to stop the explosion now, but there might be a way to contain it.
'If you do that... you will die with me,' Quai rasped as Judge Hog rushed to the panel, one hand grasping the lever.
Slowly the Moehog shook his head. 'You just don't understand, Quai,' he said sadly. 'You were ready to give up your life for the people of the Citadel. Well, so am I.'
He pulled. Above the screaming engines echoed the sound of heavy doors locking into place in the unseen depths of the engine network, the great reinforced doors slamming into place around the control room, the loud and ominous clunking resonating over them as the locks closed. It was over.
Judge Hog looked up. Something was wrong. Only three locks had fallen into place, the fourth conspicuous in his absence. Panic filled him as he spun on the spot, searching desperately for the problem. One doorway had not fully closed, a dark opening calling out from beneath its thick steel.
* * *
A cool sea breeze swept across the island, whistling ominously through the ruins and filling the morning mists with its ghostly wail. Jess stood alone in what had once been the bustling main street, now reduced to dusty rubble as the quake had rushed through underfoot. Through the mists she could just make out the vague outlines of pets trawling through the ruins, searching for anything that might have salvageable value before the scavengers descended again. The Maraquans had already faced off the first wave of pirates seeking to loot, but it would not be long before they tried again.
'So, you're the one Judge Hog speaks of,' a deep voice suddenly declared behind her.
'Alternately you can call me Jess,' she replied lightly, turning to face the speaker with a knowing smile. She had felt him approach, listening to the soft sound of his footsteps in the chill silence of the morning. From what she had been told it was one of the few traits he did not share with his father; Lord Darigan had been notoriously stealthy when he wished to be.
'Jess, then,' the towering grey Korbat corrected himself, returning her smile with a humourless stare, 'to what do I owe the pleasure of your visit?'
'I am merely filling in for Judge Hog while he recovers, Master Darigan.'
'It's Lord Darigan actually,' he corrected her wearily. 'The council saw fit to swear me in the moment I arrived on Faerieland in the wake of this disaster, even going so far as to make stand in a bucket of dirt while they did so.'
She fought back a smirk at the thought of the proud Korbat humbled so spectacularly, regretting she had missed it. 'The people need a leader, Lord Darigan. From what I have heard you will make an admirable successor to your father.'
'My father is still master of the Darigan lands,' he snapped hotly, 'I am merely regent in his stead. For some ridiculous reason the heir to the throne cannot be regent, only a lord may take that title, so for the time being I've been risen to Quai's old seat. It seems as a nation we have become little more than a quagmire of bureaucracy.'
'Sometimes the familiarity of bureaucracy helps the people feel secure at times like this, Lord Darigan,' Jess replied with a shrug. 'It's a small price to pay for your people, surely?'
The Korbat nodded agreement, but still bore a disgruntled look. 'If it helps them transition to the homeland again I suppose I'll just have to stomach it. When my father recovers I'll see to it he gives the bureaucracy a collective kick up the backside for the trouble it brings though.'
'How is he doing?'
'My father? Even without Quai's poison in his veins any longer he is still weak, tormented by nightmares. We have no idea if he'll ever truly recover from this treason, but we can but hope. It seems to bring him comfort being in the homeland again, and he responds well when he hears his people are settling in.'
'No plans on coming back here then?' Jess asked, looking around at the ruins through the thinning mist. She had already seen the damage to the rest of the Citadel caused by the engine explosion and its subsequent crash into the ocean, chained now to the seabed by the Maraquans. The foundations had been devastated by the quake that shook the stone during its fall, the lower levels flooded with seawater. It was a miracle as much survived as did.
Darigan scoffed at the thought. 'Why would we want to? Look up there and tell me what you see? Do you see the mighty Darigan Citadel looming through the mists? Do you see the dark turrets of the Citadel, or the dead forest that protects it? No, you see the sky where the Citadel once stood. The foundations are destroyed, and the Darigan Citadel itself has been swallowed by the earth it once stood upon. This place has been rendered uninhabitable by Quai's efforts. What had once been our home is now little more than a testament to our downfall and the madness of one pet. Given the choice I would shatter that chain and let it sink to the bottom of the ocean where it belongs.'
Suddenly he stopped in his tirade, closing his eyes and heaving a deep sigh. For the first time Jess saw him properly, fresh lines his father had never borne weighing heavy on his face, pressing his shoulders into an undignified slump.
'I'm sorry,' he said at length, 'I should not be taking out my frustration on you. I should be thanking you for your efforts; Judge Hog tells me you were the one who found Lord Greystone and unmasked Quai for the traitor he was. Instead of thanking you I'm just snapping at you needlessly.'
'From the way I hear it we should be thanking you,' Jess replied graciously.
'Complacency is not a good thing,' Darigan insisted. 'If we had properly maintained those blast doors we could have contained the blast far better and reduced the damage to both the Citadel and Faerieland, not to mention the damage that wave caused to the shore of Mystery Island and the people of Maraqua.'
'Then we would have lost Judge Hog, and there is no way you can tell me that would have been a good thing,' Jess protested firmly. 'The damage was collateral, thankfully. It can be repaired, as can Judge Hog's injuries. His life however, couldn't be.'
Darigan smiled. 'I suppose so,' he conceded. 'Still, the Darigan people have a lot to thank the both of you for. Had the Citadel exploded on Faerieland, we would have been reviled by the people of Neopia for generations. For all Quai's claims at the end of doing it for the good of our people, it would have meant the end for us, even if we came through it without a scratch.'
It still could, she thought to herself. They still had no idea if everything had been salvaged from the raid on the Hidden Tower. The Citadel may have been saved, but if anything had fallen through the cracks and reached Master Hog the legacy of Lord Quai's betrayal could yet be further reaching than they had hoped.
Darigan looked at her as though reading her thoughts, nodding gravely to himself. 'How fares Fyora?' he asked.
'She is still feeling the after-effects of her imprisonment,' Jess explained, 'but otherwise seems to be doing well. We were lucky at the Smugglers' Cove: one of those we managed to arrest, a Darigan Acara named Mindas, was the one responsible for the snare. He managed to cut a deal in exchange for freeing Fyora.'
Her displeasure showed openly on her face. 'It's difficult, isn't it, doing the right thing?' Darigan remarked thoughtfully, looking at her from the corner of his eye. 'To let someone like Mindas go was something nobody would have wanted, but against saving Fyora the decision was an obvious one. My father used to tell me doing the best for our people is rarely easy, and even rarer does it make you feel good afterwards, but doing the right thing is far more important than doing the easy thing. If you find it difficult to sleep at night, you have done the right thing during the day.'
Jess' mind thought back to her excursion to Krawk Island and her game with Grimtooth, Monty and Deadeye. Though they had tried to cheat her, she had done the same thing back to them. It was what had to be done, the only way to find the Revenge and its stolen cargo. It still wasn't easy.
'Try not to think on it too much,' Darigan concluded. 'In the end, justice will be served and the balance will be restored. They may escape today only to be caught tomorrow. Always it will prevail. Now, if you will excuse me I have a search to supervise. I apologise again for my conduct, and for cutting us short like this. Perhaps one day we will meet again under less stressful circumstance. Do pass my best on to Judge Hog, and wish him a hasty recovery.'
'Goodbye, Lord Darigan. On behalf of the Defenders of Neopia, I wish you the best for your people.'
He nodded politely and was gone, leaving Jess alone once more on the ruins of the Darigan Citadel. The more she thought on it, the more neither term seemed accurate for it any longer. To her surprise a chuckle rose at the thought.
Darigan had been right: it was best not to think of it too much, no matter what "it" was. They had survived a potential disaster on a scale not seen since the crash of Faerieland years ago. Whatever happened next, they would face it just as they had this time, and would find a way to overcome.
If history had taught them anything, it was that they always came through it in the end.
* * *
Footsteps echoed in the dark. Sitting at his desk, the Halloween Moehog listened to their steady rhythm, the tone of each footfall and the heartbeats between each step resonating in his thoughts. Kribal, he thought with a smile. He had been wondering when the Kougra would return.
Mystery solved, he returned to his newspaper.
Finally the footsteps ceased, a heavy box thumping upon his desk and sending a shiver through his legs resting atop it. It seemed his friend had not only returned, but come bearing gifts. After so long he had been growing uncertain if it would be the case.
'It would appear Quai fell in the line of duty,' he remarked casually, flicking through the paper with little interest, 'along with your student. A pity. From what little I have learned he finally awakened the Spectre. With careful training he could have been magnificent.'
'The Spectre is a dangerous power to try and command,' Kribal replied thoughtfully, 'and from what I saw in the Hidden Tower, wouldn't have been as effective as we'd hoped. Both the Legion and Judge Hog have developed a means of counteracting it. If Quai had escaped they would have made certain the knowledge became widespread in case we tried to use him again.'
'His mind would still have been of value, and Kakurain's sword,' Master Hog responded, throwing his paper on the desk. 'Tell me Kribal, did he speak to you?' The Kougra just shook his head.
Master Hog shrugged and kicked back from the desk, finally turning his attention to the wooden box sitting before him. A trace of excitement rose in his heart at the thought, but it was a shadow of what he had been expecting; so often it was that anticipation was far more exciting than the actual receiving of a treasure.
'It would appear something escaped the trap at the Smugglers' Cove after all,' he said cheerfully.
'It never made it to the Cove,' Kribal corrected him.
Laughter echoed through the dark room, descending into a slow applause. Whatever would he have done if Kribal had not consented to join him that night back in their youth? It was a thought that occurred far more often than he was willing to admit, especially in the early days. Without the Kougra's steadfast support, he was certain he would not have been where he was today.
Dismissing old memories, he turned his attention back to the waiting box, as unassuming as any other as it sat patiently for him. Almost lazily he reached over and lifted the lid, allowing the ethereal colourless glow to escape into the darkness. A glimmer of excitement flashed in his eyes, a wry smile spreading across his lips at the thought of new mysteries waiting for him.
'Put it in storage,' he said simply, dropping the lid closed again and reaching for his paper.
Mysteries could wait for now.