His Name is Kribal: Part Nine
Rain clouded the skies of Neopia Central, the tumultuous gloom of blackened skies dampening the spirits of even the most determined of pets about on the streets. Vendors had closed early to escape the coming storm, running for shelter alongside their would-be customers and into the waiting arms of the many coffee shops and tea houses that littered the streets. Even the catacombs were feeling the effects, rivers of rainwater running through their underground haven and dispersing the artists and storytellers, their comic attempts to escape much to the amusement of the onlooking crowds.
In the heart of the now quiet plaza, the heavy droplets cascaded upon the towering Defenders of Neopia headquarters, its inhabitants peering out into the gloomy shroud with hopeful smiles; when the weather turned like this, the criminals were just as keen to get off the streets as everyone else. A particularly stormy night often hailed an evening off for the enforcers of the law within Neopia Central.
Staring out over the rain-sodden city, Judge Hog did not share the sentiment. Beneath the shroud of every storm, there were always those who would seek to turn it to their advantage; those who were not deterred by the downpour. Out there somewhere they were stirring, monsters waiting to strike.
Out there somewhere, Master Hog was waiting.
Heaving a sigh at the unpleasant prospect, he turned his back to the great windows overlooking the city and back to the room's other occupant. 'You are sure it was Thessalium?' he asked.
Jess nodded firmly. She had visited the library upon her return to double-check what she had seen. 'Either it's real or a very good copy. We can't afford to take the risk.'
His focus wavered again, drawing him back toward the tall windows and the stormy maelstrom hanging over the city. It seemed strangely apt, as though nature itself were lamenting their latest defeat. The value of Thessalium was beyond anything else, its uses greater still, and the only raw deposit left in all Neopia had found its way into the hands of the enemy. To what ends Master Hog wanted it was beyond Judge Hog's comprehension; even his nightmares were unlikely to come close.
'I shouldn't have let him go,' Jess lamented quietly, her voice breaking the reflective quiet.
'No, you made the right choice. Our purpose is to protect the citizens of Neopia, first and foremost. That was what you did. Even if you had realised he would not have allowed the gas to be released while he was still in the facility, Kribal would have ultimately come to rescue him from you after disabling the pumps. Either way we would be where we are now.
'Go home, get some rest,' he said at length, glancing back at his companion. 'Until we know what he plans to use it for, there's nothing more we can do now.'
'There is something else.'
Judge Hog froze. A hardened tone now filled the Zafara's voice, its icy chill replacing the thoughtful stillness of the room with a new frigid edge. Slowly he turned to face her and found the same chill in her eyes, staring into his own with a fierce determination.
'Kribal told me an interesting story, about four pets who wanted to change the world. He even showed me a picture of the four of them in the academy at Faerieland. There was Kribal himself, and Master Hog. A distracted genius. And, "a righteous fool, average at best, but with unmatched spirit," was how he described the fourth. Judicius. You.'
He returned her icy glare, a fiery rage building in his dark eyes. 'At no point have I denied my association with Master Hog,' he replied, his voice a careful monotone. 'If there is a point to your accusation I suggest you make it now, otherwise you would be smart to walk away, and perhaps I will let this slide.'
'You and I both know there is a whole lot more to this than a couple of school friends. Master Hog could have walked away with the Thessalium without us ever knowing, but instead he set up some elaborate scheme to bring us in. No; to being me in. You've been keeping something from me, and he set this up to tell me what it was. We don't have time for games anymore Judge Hog; what is the real story behind the two of you?'
'Go ahead, Judicius, tell her.'
The deep baritone echoed through the stunned silence left in its wake, filling the room with its calm, confident tone. Veiled in the half-light of the storm-ridden evening, Master Hog stood nonchalant in a corner of the room, knowing smile spread casually across his face as he regarded the two dumbstruck pets before him. Only the forgotten rhythm of the rain beating against the windows could be heard as the last tones of his words faded away.
Automatically Jess began to move toward him, but a sudden chill closed tight about her chest, holding her back. Her eyes slowly turned from the watching Halloween Moehog, drifting toward the doors where another pet stood quiet, his impassive yellow eyes locked on her. There was nothing threatening in his appearance, but she knew the stoic Kougra was waiting, poised to strike the moment she dared move.
'Go ahead, tell her,' Master Hog repeated calmly, turning his attention to the masked Moehog. Judge Hog had not so much as flinched at the unexpected arrival of his foe, simply returning the disarming smile with a hard look. He was not going to play along.
'Do you really want it this way, Judicius?' Master Hog continued when no response came, abandoning his light tone as the smile slipped from his face. 'Tell her that you and I are nothing more than a cliché. Tell her we are nothing but the overused construct of a stale literary world. That we are the oldest and blandest of relationships, as predictable as the sunrise and just as mundane.'
'When did you become so petty, Mortimer?' Judge Hog interrupted hotly. 'Are you trying to tell me this entire debacle was just so you could make this stupid speech?'
'I set this up so the truth would finally come out: that over the past thirty years we have been face-to-face on over a hundred occasions and not once have you even tried to arrest me. You could have put a stop to all this decades ago, and you did nothing. You expect people to trust in you, to believe in you, and yet you don't trust anybody else to do the one thing you will never be able to bring yourself to do: arrest me.'
Footsteps echoed ominously around the room as Master Hog approached, stepping up to Judge Hog until the pair were almost nose-to-nose. An opportunity reared its head in Jess' thoughts, watching him pass her by. Immediately she felt the chill of Kribal's eyes on her again, and the thought dissipated as quickly as it had come. This matter was between the two of them for now; Kribal might not interfere for Judge Hog, but he was not going to allow her to interrupt. Not yet.
'Even now,' Master Hog resumed, 'standing face-to-face like this, you can't bring yourself to act. Even if I told you I had ordered Kribal to not interfere under any circumstance, you would still not do anything. And why is that? Go ahead, Judicius, say it. Tell her why I will never be stopped while you stand against me.'
Suddenly everything slotted into place. Peering past Master Hog, Jess saw the despair clear in the eyes of her leader, the impossibility of what was being asked of him, and she finally saw what Master Hog and Kribal wanted her to. The image of two cheerful youths passed before her eyes again, the answer screaming at her so clear. How had she not realised it the moment she understood who the two of them really were?
Recognition showed on her face, instantly followed by the sound of Kribal's sharp voice, 'Mortimer.'
Master Hog glanced, and a sad grimace covered his face. 'Ah. Judicius, it would appear your chance at redemption at been lost; your student has finally understood what we have been showing her.' He stepped back, shaking his head solemnly, before finally turning his back to Judge Hog. 'Jessica, I am sorry,' he said as he passed, pausing in his stride. 'But it would appear my little brother doesn't trust you after all.'
Seeing them face-to-face the resemblance was unmistakeable, even with Judge Hog's face obscured by the mask. In their youth it was even more apparent, the brothers standing proudly side-by-side with their grand ambitions, unaware of where their paths would ultimately take them. The pain in Judge Hog's eyes had said it all, staring down his older brother with the knowledge he could never raise a hand to one so important to him. The Defenders of Neopia had been his attempt at redemption, standing against the unlawful element of Neopia Central and beyond in an effort to undo the damage he did every day he let his brother run free.
'You want to know something, Judicius?' Master Hog asked suddenly, looking back over his shoulder at his brother. 'I had high hopes a year ago, when you finally realised you needed someone to chase me. I thought you had finally tired of this game, and were at last going to come and stop me. But my hopes came to nothing, and you were just using her as a puppet to put distance between us. Well, now her strings have been cut, and she knows the truth you didn't want her to know. Perhaps now we can start to play properly.'
'This isn't some game, Mortimer!' Judge Hog cried, his fist striking hard against his desk. 'What you are doing is playing with the lives of everyone on Neopia!'
'Which is all the more reason for you to stop me before it gets out of hand,' Master Hog retorted calmly. 'You were not ready to take that step, so I have taken it for you. Think of all the trouble you could have stopped if you had just told her yourself a year ago.'
'Think of all the trouble you could have stopped if you had just told me this directly,' Jess snapped, amazed at the sound of her own voice. 'You can't treat the world like some twisted game just to get a point across. All those people on Kreludor suffered because you didn't have the guts to come out and say something directly. Was it even real Thessalium you found, or was that part of the elaborate set up as well?'
'Oh no, that was real,' the Moehog replied with a smooth smile, 'as was everything else about the operation. I just thought bringing you in would be a fun way of killing two Weewoo with one stone, as it were. I take it you don't agree with my methods, but then I never expected you to. If you want me to stop treating the world like "some twisted game", I suggest you stop me.'
She lunged forward, snapping at his bait. Instantly Kribal was between them, his paw shooting out and connecting firmly with her stomach. Her mind flashed back to their first encounter, the chill rushing into her lungs as she collapsed to the floor, gasping for breath.
Master Hog just continued to smile as he looked down at her. 'See, we have already started to play,' he said lightly, 'and isn't it already more fun than before? I look forward to seeing what you can do. Judicius, Jessica; until we meet again.'
'Mortimer!' Judge Hog cried after his brother's retreating back, but it was too late. Kribal close on his heels, the Moehog slipped through the door and disappeared into the shadows of the building. There was no point giving chase: they would never find him. They never did.
Judge Hog sagged. Rounding the desk he helped pull the ailing Zafara to her feet, still gasping for breath after Kribal's precise blow. Coldly she shrugged him off, shooting him an icy look.
'Why didn't you tell me?' she asked slowly.
'It isn't important.'
'Isn't important? You are always the first one to pull someone off a case if they have any personal attachment! It's one of the most basic rules of the Defenders of Neopia, making absolutely sure we always approach a case with a clear and rational head, and you completely ignored it on what is probably the most dangerous case we have! How can you say it isn't important?'
'Because it's my problem, not yours!' he snapped. 'Mortimer is my brother, and I swore when I formed this organisation that I would deal with him!'
'He isn't just your problem anymore!' she insisted angrily. 'When you brought me into this during the Quai incident, he became my problem as well! If you had told me then, we could have done something then. But he was right, and you just didn't trust me. So how am I supposed to trust you?'
Angrily she spun on her heel and marched toward the door. Words spun in Judge Hog's head, pointless excuses each as feeble and pathetic as the last, none able to justify this.
On the threshold she stopped, staring blankly into the dark corridor beyond. 'What was it the Shadow Usul said? "You will have to choose one day, which path you will walk"? If what we've just heard is true, I would say that day is coming, and you are going to have to decide whose side you are on: Neopia's, or your brother's. You can't have it both ways this time, Judicius.'
The door snapped shut behind her, leaving just the echo of the storm in its wake.