Second Chance: Part Three
"Are you sure this is safe?"
"Of course not. But he said that she's not the real one. Some kind of copy?"
"A different version. There are theories..."
Brynn woke up to the sound of two voices, the first one dynamic, the second one more reserved.
Before opening her eyes, she tried to get a feel of her surroundings. The whole of her back was propped against something hard. It felt like she was horizontal. Her arms and legs were spread away from her body and held in place by rings of metal. Her body wasn't particularly sore, but very cold. She let her eyelids flutter open. The blackness faded and a dark stone ceiling came into focus, like the roof of a torchlit tunnel. She was definitely underground.
"Oh, she's awake," said the second voice as it came closer. A pink-furred face appeared over Brynn. "Can you hear me?"
"Yeah," said Brynn, "and that's two fingers you're holding up." Her mouth felt like cardboard. She wondered how long she had been unconscious.
"Who are you?"
"Captain Brynn of the Faerieland Guard."
Her interrogator exchanged a glance with the other person who was out of Brynn's sight.
"What were you doing at Xandra's base?"
Brynn nearly tried to rub her temples before remembering that she was shackled. "I got there by mistake." She said no more about her allegiance, as her brain had woken up and her caution returned. "What are you to Xandra?"
The person moved closer so that her face was lit by torchlight; she wore a stern, forbidding expression and her arms were crossed in an arrogant stance. "If you're a supporter of hers, you're in deep trouble."
Brynn hadn't recognised the Ixi at first. Her sleek black hair was pulled back, the coy silk veil that had adorned the lower half of her face was gone, and her eyes were heavily rimmed with the same black kohl that her husband was famous for. She wore plain dark clothes with a few pieces of light armor. Although this version of Nabile didn't look particularly friendly, her presence was good news to Brynn, as Qasala had been an ally in the effort to save the Faeries.
Nabile leaned on the slab of rock that supported Brynn and stared into the Kougra's eyes. "How strange to find you here. Captain Brynn of the Brightvale Guard was petrified three years ago and remains in Xandra's custody, a perfect model for any duplicates she might wish to create."
"I know, I saw her - me - whoever that statue is. I understand that you've restrained me out of caution, but I can assure you that it's not necessary. I am an enemy of Xandra. In the place where I'm from, I actually helped to defeat her before it was too late."
"If you are not affiliated with Xandra, then how did you come to be stuffed full of a magic that seems remarkably similar to Faerie magic?"
"It's nothing big, just a blessing I got!"
Nabile surveyed Brynn's every feature. "Right now, you are in possession of the only known Faerie magic in the world. You understand why I need to know where it came from."
Brynn puffed her cheeks and blew out a long breath; this was far too complicated for her to explain. "I don't know about you, but I am from a place where the curse on the Faeries was reversed shortly after the crash of Faerieland, which has been rebuilt on the ground. I got a blessing from Queen Fyora less than an hour before coming through."
Nabile's mouth opened slightly and its corners turned upwards in her excitement. She looked at the other person again. "Does that confirm your theories?"
"Yes!" came the reply. "This could mean so much, it's just mind-blowing." A Bori walked over to Nabile and briefly showed her a circle of swirling lights around her hand. "My spell didn't detect any lies, so unless, of course, she has a very strong barrier, this is the real thing!" She also had pink fur; her head looked strangely small without her typical pointy hat, but her long braid of cherry red hair was instantly recognisable.
"Rasala the Bright!" said Brynn, incredulous.
The sorceress turned to glance at her. "I don't know about the Bright, but yes, my name is Rasala. I don't believe we've ever met. I have so much to ask you. If you could tell me everything about your world, we could complete centuries of research!"
"Let's get back to the matter at hand," said Nabile, cutting her off. "So there is a place where the Faeries are alive and have their magic, including Queen Fyora. How can we contact that place, Brynn?"
"Something inside Xandra's base. I don't have the slightest idea how it works, and I don't think she does, either. We'd have noticed on our side. By the way, I really must find my way back; I'm afraid I caused a bit of a commotion and I don't want them to discover the passage."
Nabile's face fell and she exchanged another glance with Rasala. "Plan B, then."
The Bori nodded, walked away and returned shortly with a long, thin object in her hands. It had the texture of glass, but was murky brown in color and barely reflected the torchlight. Its end was looped around an orb of the same glass, with what seemed like little cracks and bits of dirt stuck inside. Brynn thought she recognised its shape.
"Could that be... Fyora's staff?"
Rasala nodded, removing a ring of interwoven wires from beneath the orb.
"How did you get it?"
"With difficulty. I'm afraid we'll have to use it on you. Your blessing is our only hope of reviving this staff."
Brynn's shackles felt increasingly uncomfortable. She knew that she would probably have taken similar precautions if she were in Nabile's place, but there was something sinister about the lifeless staff that loomed over her. "Wouldn't it be more interesting to search for the passage to my world? There's plenty of Faerie magic there."
Nabile shook her head. "We can't afford to send people into Xandra's fortress. It would take time and resources to plan such an expedition, and we're desperate people," she admitted bluntly.
Brynn did not like the sound of that. "Well, if this is only Fyora's staff, it should be fine, right?"
"We're hoping it'll sense the magic of your blessing and return to its former state," said Rasala. She tilted the staff so that the orb was above Brynn's midsection. "It's just that without its owner, it's become a little bit -"
Glass spikes grew out of the orb and shot through the air without warning; several hit the ceiling, causing tiny shards of glass to rain over Brynn; one narrowly missed Rasala's face, one struck the ground in front of Nabile, who jumped back, and one would have stabbed through Brynn's ear if she hadn't twisted her head to the side.
"- a little bit wild," Rasala finished.
Red-hot pain shot through Brynn's limbs and clamped around her chest, tightening like a band of steel; her insides contorted as if they were being reeled in by some dense vortex, the pressure increasing until she felt as if her blood itself would be drained out of her veins and into the orb. Cries echoed in the same voices that she had heard in the grim Faerie stone corridors.
Nabile's shout seemed to float around her. "Rasala! Rasala, seal that thing!"
It was over as fast as it had begun. She took a great, gasping breath and felt her limbs fall back onto the stone, unaware that she had been straining against the shackles with all her strength. She didn't remember screaming, but her jaw felt stiff and the fur around her chin was damp.
Then the shackles fell open and Nabile's trembling arms were around her. "I'm so sorry," came the Ixi's voice, "so sorry, how could we ever put you through this." She kept whispering frantically as she helped Brynn to sit up. The Kougra was limp as a ragdoll; she heard Nabile calling for Rasala's help before her exhaustion took over.
Brynn was vaguely aware of being transported and placed in something soft. When she got her senses back, Rasala was sitting next to her with a look of concern. She placed a mug in front of Brynn's lips and began to tilt it into her mouth.
"Here, it'll help."
The Kougra nearly jerked away before she remembered that Rasala was most probably an ally. The mug contained a refreshing brew with strong herbal flavors that helped to awaken her. She sat up with a groan and pushed back the heavy woollen blanket. Her whole body was terribly stiff and sore.
"What on Neopia was that thing?" she croaked.
"I'm sorry. I wasn't able to control it. The staff did recognise your magic and started to absorb it, but it didn't stop there; it would have drained the life out of you, then probably turned against Nabile and me." Rasala stared blankly at her hands, which were fiddling with Brynn's empty mug.
Brynn looked around at the decrepit stone walls, trying to identify the building. They were in a plain room that might have been used for storage once. Besides the bed she rested on and Rasala's chair, there was only a battered old wooden wardrobe.
The door opened with a loud creak of protesting hinges and Nabile hurried inside. "You need to warm yourself," she told Brynn as she handed her a tray laden with two steaming bowls. Brynn immediately dug into the hot porridge and scarfed it down with relish; each mouthful chased the cold away.
"So," she managed to say before moving on to the bowl of soup, "if you guys don't battle Xandra, what are you doing in this place?"
"We battle Wraiths," said Rasala.
"There are still Wraiths?" Brynn uttered thickly through chunks of potato.
"Oh yes. Probably more than you've ever seen. They can't be fought as individual monsters anymore. They're just one big mass. If a Neopian is standing on the plain at the time of the Flood, they're finished. But we try to hunt down as many of their nests as we can, in groups of sorcerers teamed up with soldiers."
"Can't you find the spell that the Faeries used to banish them in the first place?"
Rasala sighed. "Where to begin? All ancient Faerie lore is in Xandra's possession. She keeps it under tight watch to stop traitor Neopians from using it to become 'tyrants' themselves."
"The irony," whispered Nabile.
"The Order to which I belong has been attempting to recreate the spell ever since the Ruin," Rasala continued, "but many of our number have disappeared. Magic unapproved by Xandra is banned, so we can't communicate in the open. She's the only one with the power to repel Wraith floods. Meridell has sworn allegiance to her and received protection against the Wraiths in return, though I hear Lady Lisha has gone into hiding with a band of other mages."
"What about the Brute Squad? Commander Flint formed them especially to battle threats like the Wraiths."
"I've never heard of a Brute Squad." Rasala glanced at Nabile.
"There was a Commander Flint in Altador, if I remember right," said the Ixi.
"Altador! What about their mages?"
Rasala hesitated. Nabile gave her an encouraging nod. "I'm not sure how it went in your reality... but here, a few Neopians got petrified at the same time as the Faeries. According to the official Xandra version, they were traitors. Xandra badly needed resources and extra magic power, so she kept the petrified King Altador hostage and threatened to smash him to pieces. The ten remaining founders debated for as long as they could. No subjects were ever prouder of their monarch than the Altadorians, but Xandra was asking for a full annexation, almost like slavery, that they could never accept. In the end, the Founders decided to do what Altador himself would have chosen. They transported the city back into the dimension where it used to be hidden, so that neither Xandra nor the Wraiths could invade it. As for the King... it wasn't pretty."
"No!" The gasp was out of Brynn's mouth before she could hold it back. She had always seen King Altador as a paradigm of everything she valued and admired.
"At least the city managed to escape our current predicament," Rasala continued gently.
"Xandra... that... how many Neopians did she take like that?"
"Who knows. Only a few were revealed to the public. Most of the fighters in this base have suffered some kind of trouble at the hands of her henchmen. There was an Ogrin master from Shenkuu, also held hostage in Xandra's base, but one day his statue just disappeared. No one saw anything out of the ordinary, so we're absolutely certain that ninjas were behind it."
Now Brynn remembered the fighters who had been briefly petrified on the day of the crash. "Then what about King Jaz..." She bit her lip, glancing at Nabile, but the Ixi's face was composed.
"Xandra took my husband," she explained calmly. "I took him right back. He rests in a secret location where Nightsteed and I take turns watching over him."
"But everyone knows that it was Xandra who caused this mess!" Brynn spluttered indignantly. "Out of all the Neopian nations with armies, isn't there someone who can stop her?"
"Neopian nations?" Nabile stared at Brynn as if she had said something incredibly stupid. "You're in a world that has been without Faerie magic for nearly three years, Brynn. You think we can give the Virtupets station a ring and have them drop down on top of Xandra's fortress? We don't have a clue what's going on with the station or Kreludor. We haven't had news ever since the Ruin. How do you want remote communication to pass through those blasted clouds? Forget about the islands, too. Nobody can sail through the hurricanes. Are you wondering why I'm not in Qasala? There's no way I can go home through the sandstorms and Wraith floods. We just can't! Pick any natural catastrophe you can think of: we have it." Her eyes dared Brynn to ask further questions. The Kougra remained silent.
"All right, then. You are a fugitive, you have nowhere to go, and you're already on Xandra's naughty list. You're welcome to stay here as long as you like, Brynn of Faerieland."
Brynn let out a sigh. "So you really believe that I come from a place where the Faeries live?"
Nabile smiled. "It's not that hard to believe. Just look at you." She helped Brynn to stand up and led her to the cracked mirror that fronted the wardrobe. The contrast was striking. Brynn hadn't noticed anything specific about Nabile's appearance, but her reflection seemed colorless, wilted, with scruffy fur and lackluster eyes. Brynn's reflection was positively radiant in comparison, exuding the same bright, healthy aura that distinguished Faeries from Neopets.
"Now, I have duties to attend to. Get some rest." The Queen gave Brynn a pat on the shoulder and walked casually out of the room.
Brynn was left to look at Rasala. "So... you don't seem too surprised by my arrival."
"Mages have been exploring the theory of alternate timelines for centuries now," the Bori explained eagerly. "The idea that every possible version of history exists in a separate reality. We've been doing a lot of research on the dimensions of space because of the Wraiths, you see, but we haven't made any progress on alternate timelines. As far as I know, this is the first time we've actually made contact. The similarity of our worlds' histories could mean that they are more closely related and therefore easier to cross. You seem to have already accepted the idea of being in an alternate reality."
"I knew it the moment I saw that sky. Are you Queen Nabile's right hand?"
"More or less. I'm not exactly a master, but I'm the highest ranked sorceress in this area. I used a healing spell on you, by the way, but you didn't seem to need it. That blessing is something. I could swear you had an enormous lump on the back of your head when you came in."
Brynn automatically felt her head. It seemed intact. That was surprising indeed, as she suddenly remembered what had led her to this place - the fight with Hanso.
"Rasala, how did I get here, exactly?"
"Xandra's pet thief, Hanso captured you and brought you here. We locked up the double-crossing scum, of course, but it seemed strange for him to let us catch him so easily. At least it's safer to have him in a cell than to have him lurking around."
"Can I talk to him?"
Rasala's eyes narrowed. "I'm not sure that's a good idea. He's... how shall I put it. Not easy to talk to."
After everything she had just been through because of Hanso, Brynn expected an apology at the very least.
"I know him very well, Rasala. I spent most of my career in Brightvale putting him behind bars."
"Oh. What an admirable occupation!" The Bori raised her eyebrows with newfound respect for Brynn. "Well, if you think you can handle him, I'll let you see him. You do have the right to see your attacker."
The sorceress led her out of the room and into a dark stone corridor. When they reached a staircase, Brynn heard echoes of banter and clanking metal from the upper floors; then Rasala led her downstairs into a mustier, dirtier passage. Through an opening on her left, Brynn spotted the stone table to which she had previously been shackled. Rasala kept walking until she reached the first of a series of barred cell doors. She knocked on one of the bars.
"You have a visitor, thief!"
"Rasala, how sweet! Did you miss my eyes that much?" came Hanso's voice. "No wonder you're always the one to question me. You must find me utterly bewitching."
"I only get traitor duty because Nabile can't stand to see you!" shrieked the Bori immediately. Flames erupted around her hands. "I don't know what's kept me from roasting you to a crisp!"
"I'm just too cool for your fireballs."
Brynn guessed that Rasala hadn't yet built up enough tolerance to have a non-violent conversation with Hanso. That took years of training.
Fuming, the sorceress unlocked the door, let Brynn step inside, then went to sit on a chair across the corridor to leave them some space. Hanso's grin faded away.
Nabile or whoever had locked him up had had the good sense to shackle him to the wall - there was no point in putting Hanso in a cell if his hands weren't restrained. He was sprawled on a bench, one side of his face still swollen up from Brynn's blows. He gazed at her with mild interest, then stifled a yawn and looked away.
At last, she was standing in front of him. She had a chance to understand what had gone wrong, both with him and with this entire reality. As someone who had known him for years, she might be the only person who could solve this. All she had to do was question him, ignore his taunts and keep calm.
Unfortunately, the longer she looked at his cold sneer, the more she remembered their fight.
"Hanso..." She exploded. "You scruffy slimeball, how could you stomp on my tail! I knew you could sink low but come on, a tail blow?" She glared daggers at him, waiting for a reaction.
He merely raised an eyebrow. "Shouldn't you be flattered that I had to resort to desperate measures?"
"What is wrong with you? What are you getting out of this?"
He scoffed, exasperated, as if she was too young to understand. "You don't know anything. You just burst in here and messed everything up. Thanks very much for setting off the alarm, by the way. What business did you have trying to touch a statue?"
"I saw you touch her first!" she said defensively.
Hanso looked down and turned away, as if she had caught him in an intimate moment. "I can't actually put my hand on her," he muttered.
She waited for a moment, infuriated by his lack of reaction. "Why did you have to bring me all the way here? Everything could have been set right by now if you hadn't randomly attacked me!"
His face fell, he stared at her in disbelief. "Well I don't know! I should probably have tossed you into a Wraith nest instead! Oh, why didn't I think of that earlier? Sorry I didn't remember to torture you on the way!"
"That's already been taken care of!" Brynn remembered that Rasala was still within earshot. "Though not on purpose. Anyway, it was all for nothing. I must get back to Xandra's place and you're just going to have to deal with it."
"Xandraland? Get real. You'll never be able to set another foot in there."
They glared at each other in a stubbornness contest.
Brynn had to admit that she would not be able to figure him out. Despite what she had assured Rasala, this alternate Hanso was a stranger to her. In this world, she had to stop thinking of him as her partner.
A foghorn blew in the distance, shattering the tension of the staring match. Behind Brynn, Rasala had stood up, listening.
"A flood alarm? But nothing was predicted for today!" said the sorceress.
"Rasala, what's happening?" When the Bori didn't reply, Brynn turned back to Hanso. "What does this mean?"
"This ought to be good," he said with a sardonic grin. "You ever seen a Wraith flood, girlie?"
To be continued...