Second Chance: Part Eight
Hanso entered the study. His eyes fell on Brynn, then he immediately looked away. "I've been looking for you," he told Xandra. "Balthazar made a bit of a mess, but it's nothing too bad, he's fixing it right now. The castle is safe." Brynn was heartened to hear him covering for the prisoners' escape.
Xandra was drinking in his words. "Hanso... tell me, can you see...? can you see her?"
"See what?" The Ixi's face remained perfectly composed. His acting was so good that Brynn nearly believed it. "Are you having more hallucinations? They'll go away once you've had some rest." He started to lead her out of the study.
"Filthy liar," hissed the Xweetok. A small spark of green energy zapped Hanso, making him wince. "Now hand me the quest item. Those things are really starting to eat me up."
He dropped the Wraith fang pendant into her open hand and she placed it around her neck. Xandra's body immediately started to convulse. A huge, seemingly endless torrent of Wraiths burst out of her mouth with a roar that echoed through the fortress. They flowed out of the windows and seeped through the cracks around the door until only Xandra was left in the middle of the room, panting with one hand over her chest. She stood straighter and her breathing sounded healthier. The spark in her eyes had returned - the evil spark.
"Explain," she said simply.
"She's not real. The real one is still in the collection. This one hasn't done anything. Please let her go."
Xandra listened to Hanso's pleading tone with relish. "So you're asking me to...?"
"Please let her go, Milady. I beg you."
She turned back to Brynn, satisfied. "We'll see about that. How did you get here, Faerie-like thing?"
Brynn kept her mouth shut and braced herself. When she didn't answer, Xandra zapped her with a shocking blast of magic. Then a second. Then a third, stronger one that made a whimper escape her lips.
"So the secret behind your creation is more important than your own safety. No matter, then," said Xandra. "If someone comes for you, I will question them instead." Brynn didn't know if she should be relieved yet. Xandra didn't seem to suspect that a whole universe of Faerie magic lay just a few yards from her rooms.
"In the meantime, your magic will provide me with an excellent source of power." The Xweetok unclasped the round case that hung from her shoulders and pulled out an artefact - the artefact.
"But it's only a tiny piece of magic!" protested Hanso.
Xandra gave him a look of warning that shut him up. "I'm not so far gone that I can't recognise a powerful blessing anymore, Hanso. With this one stored in my amplifying lens, my magic will be on par with the Faerie Queen's!" She had started to draw symbols in the air with two fingers, stammering in her excitement.
Brynn felt a tiny jolt in her chest as the artefact began to glow green.
"So you will finally be powerful enough to banish all the Wraiths?" asked Hanso.
Xandra raised an eyebrow. "Why would I do that?" she said coldly. "Wraiths are not tyrants. They're useful, on the contrary. They weed out the weak. No. With this much power, I'll be able to break down barriers. I will neutralise the hurricanes and hunt down the traitors of other continents. Then I will wipe out the traitor cities of Altador and Darigan. Don't make that face, Hanso, it makes you look even uglier. This will bring us even closer to our goal."
A string of energy had formed between Brynn and the artefact, glowing brighter by the second. The pressure in her chest increased until she couldn't take it anymore and cried out, twisting her bound wrists.
"Are you worried for your substitute, Hanso? She'll be fine, I'm only using a spell that draws out her magic."
Brynn was starting to feel numb from the pain. It wasn't as intense as what she had felt when Fyora's staff tried to drain her, but it was much slower. The numb feeling seemed to have concentrated in the fingers of her left hand, for some reason. She glanced at them and felt her blood freeze in her veins: her flesh was turning into stone. She let out a shriek and waved her fingers as if to shake off the curse, but they brushed against the floor and the sickening feeling of stone scraping against stone made her avert her eyes.
"Whoops," said Xandra with a nasty grin, "looks like there was still an old petrification spell waiting in the artefact. I wonder if it will spread?"
Hanso's eyes had widened and were fixed on Brynn's hand; he wore the same look of horror that she had seen in her petrified counterpart's memories. He suddenly lunged for the artefact.
Xandra didn't even bother to move. Hanso froze, looking at something behind Brynn. She craned her neck to see her petrified counterpart levitating a foot above the floor.
"Perhaps I haven't made myself clear enough in the past, Hanso," hissed Xandra. "whenever you decide you've had enough of our agreement, I will present you with a nice new rock garden for you to tend. Wouldn't it be cute with a pattern of Kougra stripes? So, what shall we start with? Her heart? Ah, but you've already dealt with that. What about her pretty little face, then?"
Hanso had already let go of the artefact and bowed his head, but Xandra continued.
"That would be unfair on you, though. I did tell you that I would free her one day, after you'd served me enough. Ah! I think I've found a compromise!" The Xweetok's mouth twisted in a horrible rictus. "Why don't I smash a few pieces and then reverse the petrification?"
Brynn's body was so numb from the pain that Xandra's voice sounded like a distant echo. Strange shapes swam in and out of focus before her eyes; she was quite sure that she could see a Faerie's silhouette above her.
"She's already lost three years of her life because of your incompetence, Hanso. You wouldn't be stupid enough to lose her a second time, would you?"
Brynn gritted her teeth when she heard that. How dare that witch play on Hanso's guilt! Her anger brought her back to her senses and she realised that the Faerie silhouette had really been there the whole time. There was a second petrified victim just a few feet from her alternate self.
While Xandra was distracted by Hanso's pleading and by her levitation spell, the tendrils of darkness had become looser around Brynn's limbs. She began to crawl towards the statue, biting back a cry of pain when the pull of the spell increased. All of her muscles convulsed and protested.
"I have sworn allegiance to you because your way is the right way," Hanso recited. "I am but a puppet in your great scheme for this world. Guide me and place me wherever you see fit."
Brynn dragged herself over a few more inches, using only one arm. She shuddered when the petrified fingers of her limp other arm scraped against the floor.
"Now kneel," Xandra was saying. "Who's a good boy!"
Brynn extended her trembling arm. Her hand touched the statue. She hoisted herself higher and held on to the Faerie's legs, hoping with all her being that she had seen right and that this really was a petrified Fyora.
Xandra burst out laughing. "Look at her crawl like a Slorg! Aw, are you hoping for rescue from above? Even if she was alive, she would turn her back on you!"
Brynn scowled at her. She closed her hand around the stream of sizzling light that still connected her chest to Xandra's artefact, trying to redirect it into the Faerie's statue.
"You brainless oaf! The spell will only react to you or me!" Xandra couldn't stop laughing; she had to lean on the still-kneeling Hanso's head for balance.
Brynn hugged the statue tighter, refusing to let go. She could have cried. The pull of the draining spell was fading away and she felt as if she might float right out of her own body. Something about Xandra's last words clicked in her mind. She dropped to the floor and dragged herself forward again, panting from the effort. White sparks danced in front of her eyes, then her hand found the petrified Brynn. White light exploded all around them.
At first there was fire, coursing through her entire body. It stung, but it was cleansing, and it reawakened every inch of her being.
Then there was light, a rush of warmth that pried her eyes open. Not any kind of light. It emanated from a face that hovered in front of her. She recognised Siyana, the founding Faerie of Altador.
The face was immediately replaced by another Faerie's, which switched to another in the blink of an eye. Dozens of Faeries appeared before her in the same way.
"I thought you were gone," she said.
The stream stopped on one face. "We were never really gone," said Aethia. She faded away; more came and went.
"Our magic was locked away," said Illusen.
"Unusable," added Jhudora.
The flow finally stopped on one Faerie. Fyora. She smiled serenely and spoke with the voices of hundreds of Faeries at the same time.
"Our thanks go to you, Brynneth. How fortunate that two of you came into contact."
As she said that, Brynn realised that there were indeed two of her, like a superimposition. They separated. Her double wore a different uniform and one of her hands was petrified. It was to her that Fyora spoke next.
"When you brought your blessing into this world and Xandra enhanced it, for one moment, the universe contained more magic than it was meant to hold. You upset entropy so much that all energies flew out of control. They will have to fall back into balance."
"Does that mean the Faeries will return to this world?" asked the foreign Brynn.
"Our physical forms are damaged beyond repair. None of us will return as the same individuals." Fyora looked sympathetic. "Fear not! Our magic will live on. A new cycle of existence has begun for Faeriekind. And it will start with your counterpart from this world, to be more specific."
Fyora was looking at her, now.
"When our magic was released from its curse, it accumulated around the blessing that was transferred into you and irreversibly bonded with your being. I am afraid that you are stuck with us, as they say. I promise that we will give you no reason to deplore this." She faded away as well, replaced by more Faeries.
The last face was the Darkest Faerie's. Unlike her storybook depictions, she wore no evil scowl. Her eyes were closed; she seemed peaceful, about to fall asleep. "At last," she said simply before vanishing.
Brynn emerged from her trance with a gasp, just in time to see Hanso throw his dagger into Xandra's artefact from across the room. The magical lens had already cracked, overflowing with a blinding light that was also bursting from every wall around them. Xandra's scream went on and on as the artefact exploded; Hanso flattened himself on the floor at a safe distance. When he looked up, his eyes fell on the two Brynns. He gasped and rushed over to the alternate one, who was no longer cold and grey, but warm and alive.
Brynn realised that the walls were crumbling to pieces. The crystallised magic holding the fragments of Faeries together had been released.
She flexed the fingers of her left hand: they were as good as new.
"All the spells she cast through that artefact are boomeranging back!" yelled Hanso. "We have to get out of here!"
Xandra was already half-petrified, wailing and throwing bolts of magic helplessly while a humongous crowd of Wraiths gathered outside the windows, freed from her banishing spells.
"What are you waiting for? Find your exit before it's destroyed!"
With a jolt, Brynn remembered the mirror. She ran out of the study without looking back. The corridor was already littered with bits of stone fallen from the shaking ceiling. Her body seemed to have forgotten its fatigue after the conversation with Fyora and her legs automatically took her to the right room this time.
She was startled to see a tall, cloaked Nimmo standing next to the mirror. He wore a top hat and monocle and checked an expensive-looking pocket watch as she arrived.
"You are very nearly late." Brynn noticed a signet ring on his finger, but before she could recognise the design, an amulet began to glow from the Nimmo's collar - no, that was silly. How could there be an amulet if there was no one to wear it? The only thing in this room was the mirror with the reflection of her home, and she stared intently into it.
The reflection changed, then the mirror shattered with a loud clang. She staggered and fell.
When she came to her senses, Hanso was standing above her, a worried crease between his eyebrows. The real Hanso, clean and healthy. "Finally!" he said, relieved, before shouting, "She's awake!"
Brynn noticed that his hair hung loose, freshly washed. She had never been happier to see that.
"Have I ever told you that your shampoo smells wonderful?" she mumbled.
Unprepared for the compliment, he blushed and stammered. "Thanks - I mean, I knew that! ... Did you hit your head?"
She giggled. "Nope, you hit it."
"Oh!" He slapped his forehead. "Of course I did, how could I forget. Goodnight, Brynn."
The alternate Brynn's eyes snapped open and she took in her surroundings. Hanso was tapping her hand lightly. As soon as he saw that she was awake, he lifted her onto his shoulder and tried to find an exit in the crumbling walls. She saw a completely misshapen statue of Xandra with petrified Wraiths latched onto her.
This place was wrong, she had to get out. They all had to get out, thought the voices of hundreds of Faeries.
Then there was air, spinning around her in a gigantic vortex as she left the Wraiths far below.
Hanso clung to her for dear life.
After a few minutes - or was it a few hours - they began to descend.
She touched the earth and her knees gave out.
Alternate Hanso was in shock. He had narrowly dodged Xandra's ultimate magic blasts, he had nearly been reeled in by the invading Wraiths which were caught in the petrification spell, and he had desperately searched for a way to get Brynn out of the crumbling building when a tornado had formed out of the blue and catapulted them miles away. His knees were still shaking.
Not quite sure if he was alive or in another state of existence, he looked around for any place where he might find help. They were effectively stranded in the middle of nowhere. Behind him, a narrow stretch of sea was visible on the horizon. He would probably have to walk for hours to reach any trace of civilisation.
At least he had Brynn. He realised with a jolt that she was really there, next to him. Alive and well. He stared at her for a long time, unsure if he should believe his eyes.
Slowly, he relaxed. They were both safe. Xandra was really finished. He still had a long way to go, but Brynn was with him. Everything would be fine.
Naturally, at the very second that thought crossed his mind, doom appeared on the horizon in the shape of the hugest mass of Wraiths he had ever seen. There wasn't a single direction that wasn't closed off by Wraiths or by the sea. Was he cursed? Maybe they were coming for Brynn. Why was the world so determined to destroy her life? It was such a pity, after their escape. He dropped to his knees. The tidal wave of Wraiths grew taller by the second and started to cast its shadow over them.
"Hanso..." Brynn stirred feebly. He rushed to her side and took her hand. "Water, please," she rasped.
Water? How was a pitiful drink of water supposed to help them?
He forced himself to smile. If he was going to meet his end, he might as well spend his last moments being good to Brynn. He took out his water flask. There was just enough left for a gulp or two. He helped Brynn sit up.
The water soothed her dry throat.
He stayed next to her. It wouldn't be so bad if she was the last person he got to see.
The whole side of his peripheral vision was taken up by the wall of Wraiths. Their screeches mixed into a deafening siren wail. The muscles in his legs twitched, trying to make him flee.
An enormous gaping maw opened feet from him. He could already feel the icy draught drawing him into the pitch darkness.
The air distorted around him and the wall of darkness slowed, as if it had become viscous. He clenched his teeth. Couldn't they just get him and be done with it?
But the distortion spread all around him like a shimmering veil. It reminded him of very hot air at summer time, or a malfunctioning screen. The air shimmered so much that every now and then the Wraiths disappeared for a fraction of a second.
"It's the quests, Hanso," Brynn said suddenly. Her voice had a strange echo to it. "Even the Faeries couldn't protect Neopia all by themselves. That's why the quest items are so important, regardless of what they actually are. They're a symbol of every Neopian's intention to help. That's how the spell works."
He had no idea what that was supposed to mean.
A bright splash of green shone through the ripples and Hanso was startled to see a verdant meadow. Strange plants undulated in the wind and there were tiny cottages in the distance. The bright scene vanished and was instantly replaced with columns of pink marble. A bespectacled Faerie Xweetok gazed at him. Another ripple, another glimpse of the writhing Wraiths. More images unfurled before his eyes. Underwater monsters waltzed; strange, graceful glowing creatures beamed at him from a lunar landscape filled with unearthly lights.
Then the ripples melted away. The veils fell back into place, and all the Wraiths were gone. Hanso gawked at the scene, his mouth slightly open. He rubbed his eyes. There really wasn't a single Wraith left on the plain. On the ground behind him, Brynn collapsed. Her eyelids fell shut and she sank into peaceful, healing darkness.
A glint of light ran across the surface of the sword
"It's ready." Brynn handed the weapon back to its owner, a Chia knight who bowed and walked out of the community hall. He had been the last in a line of warriors who had come to her for a blessing after their morning training session. The Kougra stretched, glad to have some free time.
Now that Wraith attacks were scarce in the region, the inhabitants could relax and tend the land. The village of Brightvalian refugees had grown larger and the kingdom was beginning to look more like its former self. Brynn had easily found her place in that community, helping to organise the local warriors into Wraith hunting expeditions.
The events from several months earlier were very hazy in her mind. She had retained no consequences from those incidents apart from some pleasant dreams and the feeling that she was always guided by a benevolent presence. And the ability to give blessings, of course. It had been strange to have everyone look up to her as a symbol, but Hanso's presence helped her find her bearings. Just as she thought of him, he appeared in the doorway, a large sack of mail slung over his shoulder.
He knocked on the door. "Are you finished?"
"Yes, come in. I was going to have lunch."
He still looked tired and scrawny, but most of the worry lines were gone from his face and he wore a particularly bright smile. "Guess who's coming to dinner."
He paused to enjoy the moment. "King Altador."
"Haha. Seriously, who's coming."
"King Altador! With a whole delegation."
Her jaw dropped. "I thought he was gone!"
"So did everyone!" Hanso was almost skipping with excitement. "I saw it happen with my own eyes. Turns out that the mages did an amazing long-distance swapping thing with an exact replica of his statue, right before it got smashed. I can't believe it worked. We're getting help from Altador, Brynn!"
Her mouth spread into a wide grin. "This calls for celebration. So much of it."
"Tell you what, why don't we have lunch outside? It's such a nice day. I'll just deliver the mail and meet you at our bench."
Brynn nodded and stepped out. A large patch of blue sky greeted her. The Order of the Red Erisim had helped her to perform rituals to spread the Faeries' magic. She was still very new to this, but she had already banished most of the Wraiths from the entire region, and the clouds were in the process of disappearing. Everything seemed more colorful and nature was in bloom once more.
Brynn went for a little walk in the communal gardens. On sunny days, she seemed to enjoy the freshly scented vegetation even more. It made hundreds of happy murmurs waft through her mind.
She turned her face towards the sun, her eyes squeezed in contentment. Its soothing warmth filled her. It was so delightful that, after glancing around quickly to check that no one could see her in such a sappy pose, she pressed her hands against her heart. The warmth became more and more intense. She felt at unison with the sun and the whole world around her. She could have stayed there forever.
A tickling sensation in her palms distracted her. She opened them and out flew a tiny spark of light. She blinked, thinking that it was a result of looking at the sun; but the light kept fluttering around the leaves of a plant. Brynn crouched to take a better look at it.
It was a Faerie. She looked curiously at the Kougra, then flew away. Brynn watched her rise higher and higher in the sky until she flew against the sun and light filled her vision.