Second Chance: Part One
"yOu wIll NeveR Be anYtHinG buT the tHief Who sTolE fReeDOM fRoM eVery NeopiaN"
"VenGeanCe will sMite tRaitOrs anD winGeD T Y R A N T S aliKe"
"you will PaY wiTh your L I F E"
Brynn set the letters down on Fyora's desk. The anonymous notes were composed of newspaper clippings.
"Winged tyrants again."
"It could be a prank," said the Faerie Queen without much conviction.
"And it could be serious. I'm not surprised we got such letters right before the Faerie Festival, Your Majesty."
They were seated in a plain, scarcely furnished room that looked nothing like a Queen's study. The bookcases could not conceal all the cracks that ran through the bare stone walls. Only a few purple banners and a rug with Fyora's crest hinted at the room's purpose. It did not seem empty, though; it was full of the Queen's powerful, soothing aura. Brynn enjoyed spending time there, even though she was rarely called in to enjoy a cup of tea and hear good news.
"Brynn, I know you're very busy organising security at the moment..."
They both knew that was an understatement, as Fyora had run around the castle for a good fifteen minutes before she could lay a hand on the Captain.
"... but I must burden you with yet another task."
"Is it because the threats are aimed at Hanso?"
"Correct. The Festival will be a tribute to the heroes who saved Faerieland, and Hanso will be out in the limelight most of the time. Every Faerie would be devastated if something happened to our hero. I'm not so worried about trouble finding him, but I am worried that he might go looking for trouble."
"He probably will, Your Majesty."
"You are the only person who can prevent him from doing that. I suggest that you delegate some tasks to your main officers and focus on Hanso's protection for the rest of the festival. I... don't recommend telling him about this, though."
Brynn nodded. Fyora watched her attentively.
"I understand that you're going to have a rough week. With all the responsibilities that have piled up on you, it would not be unwise to give your abilities a magical boost. My blessing should last long enough for the Festival."
The Kougra hesitated. She had been offered countless Faerie blessings while working in Faerieland, but she preferred to trust her own abilities. Fyora's blessing was much harder to turn down, though.
"Thank you, Your Majesty, but I must be able to rely on my own strength. What if it makes me overestimate myself?"
"Please. It would put my mind at ease for the Festival. It will only manifest in exceptional circumstances, whether you need extra strength or protection."
"Then I accept." She bowed her head slightly and closed her eyes.
Fyora placed her hand gently on Brynn's forehead. A lovely warmth spread through her. She sighed deeply. For a moment, it was as if a great weight had been lifted from her shoulders. Her everyday worries and tasks were gone. She could feel the sunlight and wind outside, she could smell the fresh flowers and hear the fountains' sparkling water. She felt Fyora's magic flowing inside her, pure and benevolent, and she noticed something else in the background, an energy of her own. Nothing else mattered.
Brynn could have stayed there forever. Then Fyora withdrew her hand and she knew it was enough. Brynn's back and shoulders felt straighter, as if she had been slouching earlier.
"That will be all for now. Thank you, Brynn."
"Thank you, Your Majesty." Brynn saluted and walked out of the room.
As she made her way through the most recently renovated wing of the castle, she was greeted by flurries of dust and excited Faeries zooming around. Mouth-watering smells wafted from the kitchens. Tapestries, paintings and other ornaments had resurfaced and the castle was beginning to look more like its former self.
Brynn had quickly learnt that Faeries were a nightmare in terms of security, especially around the Festival, when something in the air seemed to make them giddy. They would spontaneously burst into song and dance at random times of the day, as perfectly synchronised as characters from a musical. All doors and windows had to stay wide open for them to fly freely, and they moved around so much that it was near impossible for the guards' patrols to cover all the exits.
Faeries were also wonderful hosts and a very grateful people. Brynn and Hanso couldn't take one step in Faerieland without being invited into a Faerie's home or offered a treat. Hanso, in particular, had become their precious mascot. Brynn knew that he found this a refreshing change from the suspicious looks he still got in most parts of Neopia.
After stopping several times to give instructions to her coworkers, Brynn stepped out of the castle and onto the plaza where the main part of the Festival would take place. A stage had been installed in the center of a vast expanse of grass and on it stood Hanso, laughing with an Air Faerie who was setting up the lights. Brynn walked up to the stage and stood on tiptoe to wave at him.
"Ahoy, Captain!" Hanso crouched down to speak to Brynn, grinning. "Have you become so mighty that you can stroll around without your sword or armor?"
Hanso was dressed in jeans and a T-shirt, casual clothes that he rarely wore in public, preferring to show off his trademark coat. Brynn knew that she must look positively dishevelled in comparison, with her Faerieland tunic all crumpled and no helmet to cover her hair. "Oh, give me a break. You'd want to take off the heavy armor too if you had to run around and secure the whole castle."
"So, what brings you here? Did you get hit by a Curse of Fatigue? Or did you accidentally create a clone and leave it behind to do your work? I could do with a few of those."
"Actually, I came to tell you that my patrol has already been scheduled. I'll be posted right here during most of the Festival."
"Great, that way you can find yourself a good seat!"
"What will you be doing up there, anyway?"
Hanso picked up a spare piece of curtain and draped it around himself like an oversized cloak. Part of it fell over Brynn's head and she pushed it off.
"Gather round, friends of Faerieland", he declaimed while parading, "and feast your eyes upon Neopia's most lovable thief. He will not steal your wallets... but your hearts." He aimed a wink at an imaginary audience. A muffled squeal was heard from above as the Air Faerie dropped one of her tools.
"Are you wearing your own Charisma Charm?" asked Brynn.
"Of course not," he replied, tugging up his shirt collar.
"Anyway, it'll be amazing: the first performance of the Marvellous Hanso, the Dude Who Can Escape Anything. Except you, of course." With a roguish grin, he dangled a pair of handcuffs in front of Brynn's face. "I will also reenact the thrilling tale of how I saved all of Faeriekind from being fancy coatracks, because everybody wants to hear it from the Hero himself."
A group of Fire Faeries landed at the other end of the stage with various props for Hanso's show and a large tray of cupcakes for his enjoyment.
"Looks like I'm needed for rehearsal." He stretched and puffed out his chest. "Don't worry sweetheart, I'll have time to talk to you later."
"It's all right, I have lots of things to do anyway," she replied, but he had already scampered off.
Brynn walked back to the castle, slightly disoriented. She tried to find something to do, but her schedule was clear until the beginning of the Festival. It wasn't like she had a heroic deed to commemorate. She hadn't saved a whole nation. Defeating a giant shadow monster didn't really count, did it. A rampaging monster got taken down by a Neopian about once every other year.
She went to inspect the more secluded areas of the castle. All sorts of old items had been stored there while the central wing was being cleaned up for the Festival. There had been an enormous pile of magical trinkets from various Faeries' rooms, but Brynn had finally finished sorting through them and anything suspicious had been locked up in a vault.
The corridors were filled with dust motes and drifting bits of fluff. It was so quiet that she could hear bugs skittering on the floor. She walked past chipped statues, faded paintings and tarnished chandeliers before stopping in front of a tall rectangular shape covered by a petpetpet-eaten curtain. A faint humming came from it. She uncovered it in a great cloud of dust, disturbing a gang of Vernaxes which scurried away.
Behind the curtain was a very dirty mirror. It must have looked grand long ago, with wrought metal wings on its sides and intricate carvings all around the frame. Brynn had learnt the hard way that the most harmless-looking of items could turn out to be the nastiest, so she prodded the mirror every so slightly with the tip of her boot before darting to the other side of the room.
She waited, flat against the wall. No vortex opened to engulf her. She waved a hand in front of the mirror. No evil reflection jumped out to take over her life. Deciding that it seemed safe enough, Brynn wiped some of the grime off its surface and peered at her reflection. Her hair was hopeless. She could have laughed at herself. Here she was, the proud hero of Faeriekind, defending the world against ugly old mirrors.
Something was off. Not in her reflection, but in the way the room was reflected. It wasn't symmetrical. The color of the walls was different, and the windows were missing. Upon closer inspection, Brynn noticed reflections of items that weren't on her side of the mirror. The battered old vase behind her was reflected as a stack of rusty weapons.
Then she blinked and the reflection of the room was back to normal. She must have imagined the differences.
Brynn turned away to find herself in the darker, windowless room full of unknown items. Immediately, she pressed her hands against the mirror, knocking against the image of the room she had come from, but its surface was unyielding. She had gone through without even noticing. She felt inside her tunic with a trembling hand and made sure that she had her emergency dagger.
She wondered where the mirror had transported her. It couldn't be much further; surely she would have felt something if she had been warped across a great distance. The thought calmed her. She was probably still somewhere in Faerieland castle. She could find her way back and tell the others about the passageway.
There was another torn curtain hanging from a chair nearby. Brynn used it to cover the mirror again, just in case someone else found it. She didn't understand exactly how she had triggered the mirror's power, and it made her uneasy.
She walked out of the room and into a windowless corridor. Her steps echoed in the silence. There was no sound of chattering Faeries or fluttering wings. She might be at the very back of the castle, which hadn't been renovated yet.
It took her a minute to find another door, which creaked loudly when she opened it. Flickering torches lit the place with a dim, spectral white light, revealing an unfamiliar library. The bookshelves were filled with battered old tomes, parchments and scrolls locked behind glass cases, but not a single modern book.
As she was about to leave, she noticed a pile of small books on a low table. They were all recently printed and the copy on top was covered in so many annotations and edits that she could barely read it. She took one of the books and went to read it in the corridor, where the torches were slightly brighter.
The dark grey stone that made this part of the castle caught her eye. Under the torchlight, it had a more silvery tone with a tinge of purple to it. It was a conglomerate stone unlike any Brynn had seen in Faerieland. The cracks between the many little pebbles that formed it were purple, and Brynn thought it was a trick of the light, but they seemed to glint.
Faint murmurs hummed briefly around her ears. She would have dismissed them as the sound of the wind if the corridor weren't completely enclosed. Shadows wavered unnervingly around the corners of her eyes. She refrained from looking around and focused on the book instead.
The little book was titled "A History of the New Federation of Free Neopians." Leaning against the wall, she flipped through its pages in an attempt to figure out who had lived in this part of the castle.
"The Dark Ages came to an end when our Great Guide, placing her life in considerable danger, vanquished all our oppressors single-handedly in a bold maneuver. She also defeated the traitors who were working to restore the tyrants' domination. Only one traitor was reformed by our Guide's good words and remains in her service to this day."
"Let this be a lesson for all of us: the demise of the tyrants' entire species was caused by their own decadent ways. It was during one of their lavish, wasteful celebrations that their just punishment was brought upon them by the hand of our wise Guide. After Neopia was rid of their evil influence, she was able to build a new, honorable bastion of magic atop the ruins of the former. She united mages and soldiers from all across the world to fight the vile creatures left by the tyrants' tainted magic."
With every word she read, Brynn's discomfort increased. None of this could be true, yet it all sounded horribly familiar. She couldn't tear her eyes from the book. Something was missing from the story. What had happened to the "tyrants", exactly? She turned a page.
"The Faeries' petrified forms were recycled and put to a better use by our Guide."
That was it. No more information.
Slowly, Brynn looked up from the book. Her eyes stopped on the stone wall under her hand. The wall made of so many little fragments of that familiar, purplish grey stone. Her stomach twisted.
She jerked her hand away from the wall and staggered backwards. Wherever she looked, the stone was the same. Crushed petrified Faeries all around her.
The faint murmurs were heard again. She imagined voices, screams. The walls seemed to be closing in on her. She thought of all the Faeries she had spoken to just a few hours ago. There might be a little piece of face here, or a little piece of hand there.
She had to get away.
She ran down the corridor, the icy air stinging her throat with each ragged breath she took. The terrible stone walls were the same everywhere she looked, and there was no sign of the room where she had come through the mirror. She just wanted a door, any door that would lead her out of this place.
At last, a tall set of double doors on her left. There was no exit behind them, but a rather austere study. While catching her breath, Brynn couldn't help but notice the shadows in the room. They were too dark, too tall, too consistent, as if she was in an altered image with increased contrast.
Voices echoed in the corridor she had just come from. Immediately, Brynn's training kicked in. She had wandered into an unknown place that was definitely not an allied base. She crept across the room and hid behind a curtain, after a quick peek to check that it was safe. There was only an alcove with tall shapes covered by dusty drapes.
The door to the study opened and two figures walked in.
"They can't hide forever, not from us. You'll be able to lure them out soon enough."
Brynn couldn't believe her ears, she didn't want to recognise that voice. It was all wrong. Slowly, she reached for a corner of the curtain and pulled it back by less than an inch, her hand trembling. She saw her. The ungroomed green fur and shabby old robes, with an unfamiliar, heavy-looking case slung over her shoulder.
"Don't be humble now," she was saying, "it's a miracle you can still have contacts with Guild members after everything you've done." She cackled. She seemed different, unhinged.
The second person stood silently in a leathery coat. Brynn thought that he looked familiar, but his face was obscured by his long, straggly hair that hung to his shoulders.
"Look on the bright side, I can't become any less popular," he mumbled, and Brynn felt a pang of recognition at the sound of his voice. "So, Xandra, will you give me a break now?"
"I want to send you on a new quest."
He flicked his hair out of his face, revealing exhausted golden eyes and a forehead creased with anxiety. "Or else. Yeah, I know the drill," said Hanso.
To be continued...