Second Chance: Part Four
Rasala led Brynn out of the cell block and up the stairs to a cavernous area that was bustling with activity. It was still underground, but Brynn could see daylight through small windows near the ceiling. Warriors and mages of all sizes and shapes rushed around in a great jumble of colorful cloaks and glinting armor, adjusting their equipment.
"We are certain it's a flood alarm?" Rasala asked a soldier after checking a large parchment chart on a wall.
"Yep, the sentinel spotted them in the Southwest-Northeast track," replied the enormous relic Poogle, strapping his vambraces. "That's why we're always battle-ready."
"Right. I'm off to the western wall. Brynn..." Rasala turned to look at Brynn, who had been following her until now, easily keeping up with her brisk pace. "Things are going to be rough up here, but you can go back to Nabile's room and rest."
"Rest?" She hadn't considered that option. "But... there are Wraiths."
"You're a refugee, we won't make you fight."
Brynn frowned, confused. "Rasala, surely you don't expect me to... not fight?"
The Bori raised her hands. "All right, forget I asked."
They climbed another flight of stairs and were about to step outside when they came face to face with Nabile, fully armored, with twin blades strapped to her back, one more hanging from her belt, and probably many daggers hidden in every nook and cranny of her outfit.
"Where do you think you're going?" she hissed before pulling Brynn into an empty corridor. "You can't be seen out there! You've been missing for years in this world, remember?"
"Sorry, Your Majesty, I just thought an extra warrior would be welcome. Commander Flint's Wraith battling strategies could come in handy."
"Brynn, you need to know this: we have some Brightvale Guards among our ranks. Ever since Xandra took you hostage, they've been determined to fight in your memory. You've become a kind of symbol for them. Can you imagine how confusing it would be if they saw you again?"
"Maybe I could help motivate them -"
"No, Brynn! You don't belong here! You're not even the same person they knew! I know you're not planning to stay here forever. It would be cruel to return, then leave them again."
"I see." So she was a fugitive even among her friends. "What if I stayed in the background most of the time? They wouldn't recognise me."
"Oh, fine, just go out there," said Nabile, exasperated. "You deal with them. Don't you dare say a word about your universe! I don't want anyone to go mad looking for some other dimension!"
"Um... this is embarrassing, but do you have a sword I could borrow, by any chance?"
The Ixi wordlessly handed Brynn the sword from her belt and walked away. Brynn still couldn't figure out whether or not she was welcome here; then she heard the call of the battle and cleared everything else from her mind. There were Neopians to protect and Wraiths to fight. Brynn found herself on the ground floor of the building at last, but there was no building, just low, crumbling walls of a pale stone that still formed the outlines of wrecked rooms and towers. It might have been a large mansion before, or even a castle. The warriors were quartered underground because that was all they had.
She grabbed a dented spare helmet that was lying around, used it to cover her face, and followed the flow of warriors to the tall, strong outer wall, the only one that had been rebuilt. Rasala was waiting at the top.
"So, what exactly is this Flood thing?" whispered Brynn. The sorceress merely pointed at something in the distance.
Beyond the hill they stood on, far away on the barren plain, a sea of black had spread over the earth. It was larger than a lake, much wider than a river, snaking across the horizon. Brynn thought of some kind of polluted water until she realised that the mass was not liquid, but made of myriads of dark things, all rushing in the same direction. Some of them leapt above the others in their hurry; more of them spilled out on the sides and formed smaller groups which marched in other directions.
"That many? Where are they headed?"
"Meridell, most probably. Xandra's version of the Faeries' barrier will repel them. They're fascinated by the protected cities, like Mosquots around a lamp. We only fight the smaller bands that come all the way here."
The assault was straightforward. The mages began with long-range attacks from their positions on the battlements, weakening and slowing the Wraiths before they could reach the foot soldiers. A few more mages were spread among the warriors for closer attacks and healing spells, while knights circled the battle with their Uni partners.
After taking some time to get used to Nabile's sword, Brynn easily dispatched her opponents when the first wave reached her position. They were small fry compared to the formidable simulations of Commander Flint's training program. She could barely see what was going on at the front line through the dark wisps of vanquished Wraiths, but it sounded as if they were doing all right. She recognised many faces from the Brightvale Guard, from Meridell, from joint training with the Altadorian army, all working together. There were even a few old uniforms from the Faerieland Guard and some Faerieland crest banners, so that Brynn's colors didn't stand out. Battle cries erupted from all sides, stirring up the troops.
Then a towering brute was upon them, nearly as large as Oblivion. It reared and flailed its enormous limbs under the warriors' valiant attacks, swatting the mages' blasts away as if it found them vaguely irritating.
"No, when they're that big, you have to use their own weight!" Brynn didn't dare draw too much attention on herself, yet the soldiers were making no progress and the brute had to be stopped before it reached the rampart.
The monster flung soldiers away like ragdolls. As soon as there was an opening between its mammoth arms, Brynn dashed straight towards the Wraith. It spotted the small orange nuisance and made to grab at her, but it was much too slow and Brynn had sprinted between the monster's hind legs before it could reach her. Its reaction time was too long; it kept bending over until it lost its balance and toppled onto its front in a ground-shaking crash. The soldiers immediately assaulted it again.
Brynn weaved her way back to the rear lines as quickly as she could, hoping that no one had recognised her. She had lost the oversized helmet while sprinting away from the falling Wraith. It was the first time she had used this tactic on a real Wraith and now she realised just how reckless it had been, after running under the enormous dark mass that could have crushed her if she had been a second too slow. Just as she thought she had reached a quieter spot, she nearly bumped into a pair of soldiers in Brightvale Guard uniforms, a yellow Draik and a blue Skeith.
"Captain?" asked the Draik, his mouth agape.
Brynn glanced around, hoping that Rasala would miraculously appear and provide an explanation. She couldn't remember anything the Bori had said about alternate realities, and the adrenalin of the battle didn't help. She had to tell them something.
"Are you from the future?" the Skeith blurted out.
And Brynn's problem was solved. "... Yes. Yes, I am. I'm from a pretty nice place, actually." She pointed at the Faerieland emblem on her tunic. "You can't tell anyone! I shouldn't be here, and I'll need to leave very soon, otherwise... history will get all messed up."
The Draik stood dumbfounded, but a wide grin spread on the Skeith's face and he nodded vigorously. "Don't worry," he told the Draik as Brynn hurried away, "she's from the future!"
Brynn was wondering how to get back to the base discreetly when Nabile appeared, yanked her inside and marched her down a corridor. Brynn began to apologise for exposing herself, but the Ixi cut her off.
"We have a problem. Do you remember how I said you could stay here? It's not going to work." As she pulled Brynn into a study full of maps, the foghorn blew twice outside.
Rasala burst into the room, breathless. "I've never seen such a swarm, it's like the whole Flood is headed here! The barrier won't hold them off very long. She must leave immediately!"
"What have I done now?" asked Brynn, quite sure that it was something to do with her.
"Your "blessing" is drawing Wraiths here like a beacon."
Nabile grabbed Brynn by her collar. "I knew we shouldn't have trusted you when the thief brought you! If anything comes within ten feet of Jazan I swear we will send you back to Xandra in a -"
"But I told you I have nothing to do with her!" Brynn was beginning to have doubts herself. Could she have been planted into the rebels' base by Xandra somehow?
"Nabile, we don't have time for this!" Red energy crackled at the end of Rasala's staff, emphasising each of her words. "I know she was telling the truth. We just have to get her out of here, fast!"
Nabile released Brynn abruptly and took a few steps away, rubbing her temples.
"I don't understand. How can a simple blessing be so dangerous?" asked the Kougra.
"Because it's the only one," said Rasala. "In the darkest night, the smallest fireball will blaze like a thousand suns. Wherever you go in this world, the Wraiths will follow you."
"Then I must get back to my own world."
"It's the only way."
"Rasala, we can't send her away! The only source of Faerie magic!" Nabile pleaded.
Brynn jumped at the chance before Rasala could change her mind. "Can you send me back?"
Rasala's eyes widened. "Sure. Just give me the rest of the Order, all of our lost equipment and research, and maybe a couple of decades. I'm sorry, but the only way back is the way you came in."
"We are NOT sending an expedition into Xandra's fortress."
Brynn knew that it would come to this. Only one solution shone out. "You have to release Hanso. I'll persuade him to take me back."
Nabile and Rasala were speechless, for once.
"It's a win-win-win situation," Brynn continued. "You will be rid of me and of him. He will be rid of you. I will be free to go home."
"Fine. Let's go for the lesser evil," said Nabile. "But no matter how suspicious you are, I would never let a lady travel alone with that rogue. I will send Nightsteed to meet you. Something about him puts the Wraiths off, so it will hopefully counter the attraction of your blessing. Keep the sword, you'll need it. Farewell, Brynn." The queen marched resolutely into the depths of the old castle, armed to the teeth and ready to guard her petrified husband.
Rasala dropped onto a chair with a deep sigh.
Brynn found herself in Hanso's cell for the second time. He was staring blankly at the wall and didn't react to her presence.
"I made a bargain for you. You will be released if you take me back to Xandra's fortress."
He looked up. "You're still determined to go back."
"Fine, then. It's where I was headed, anyway." His expression was unreadable.
Of course, he would have plenty of time to betray her on the way, but she would also have time to see it coming. All she needed was to know where to find the fortress. Just as she was having those thoughts, his smirk returned.
"How nice of you to trust me," he purred.
Rasala unlocked his shackles reluctantly. "You will have to travel northwest at first; if you're quick enough, you'll be able to cross the breach our battle created in the Flood. There are Wraiths on all the other sides."
"Once I've made it back, I will definitely ask for help to be sent your way," Brynn whispered to her. The Bori smiled and gave her a brief one-armed hug.
The guard and the thief walked out of the dungeons in silence. An infernal Uni awaited them, ragged and putrid as if he had just risen from the grave. He shot a fiery glare at Hanso, who didn't flinch. He seemed as enthusiastic about carrying Hanso on his back as Jazan would have been.
"So," the Nightsteed boomed in a cavernous voice, "you are the blessed one who wishes to dive straight into Xandra's claws?"
"That's a good way to sum it up, yes," said Brynn. She remembered meeting Nightsteed briefly in Faerieland during a diplomatic visit; she had found him discreet and courteous.
"Let us go," he replied simply.
They rode out of the ruins, through the mages' barrier and onto the plain. As they moved further away, the Wraiths who were marching towards the ruins gradually slowed down; Brynn saw gangs of them wander indecisively before heading east again. It seemed that they had stopped sensing Brynn's presence in the ruins.
The steady beat of Nightsteed's hooves was all that punctuated the silence, along with the occasional crow of an unseen Petpet. Brynn stared at the back of Hanso's head as if hoping to see what was going on in his thoughts. So far, he was not quite as entertaining a travelling companion as his counterpart from Brynn's reality.
"Why did you have to attack me back there?" she asked tentatively.
"Put it this way: would you have gone away quietly if I had just asked you to leave?"
He didn't elaborate, but kept staring ahead at the road, pretending that she wasn't there. Brynn sighed: this was going to be a long trip. She looked around at the desolate landscape, still unable to identify it.
"Hanso, there's something Nabile didn't tell me. Where are we, exactly?"
He turned to look at her; there was something in his eyes that resembled pity. "Welcome," he said, "to Brightvale."
She gasped and immediately craned her neck to catch a last glimpse of the destroyed castle.
To be continued...