Second Chance: Part Five
The trio had been travelling for about an hour when the air was invaded by flurries of small grey specks. Brynn began to cough. There was a faint smell of rotten eggs.
"Are those ashes?"
"From a volcano," said Hanso, pointing northeast. A huge column of grey smoke rose from the horizon and melted into the raging clouds.
"But there are no volcanoes north of Brightvale!"
"There's Kiko Lake."
"That one is dormant."
"Not anymore. It woke up a few months after the Ruin."
Brynn added that to her mental map of the alternate Neopia. She thought of the peaceful little lake, imagined the rising panic of the inhabitants as the first signs of an eruption had been detected. There was probably nothing left of the pretty little houses and tourist attractions. Nabile had mentioned all sorts of natural catastrophes. How many other regions had been wiped out simply because of that last fight with Xandra, when they hadn't been able to destroy her artefact?
Gazing morosely into the distance, Brynn spotted a huge dark mass that spread all over the west. Unlike the Wraith flood, it seemed rigid and vaguely dome-shaped, with strange knotted growths protruding from it.
"What is that?" she asked Hanso.
"The Haunted Woods."
Confused, she peered at the mass again, placing one hand over her mouth to cover another bout of coughing. "I don't see any woods."
"That's because they've fused into one entity. There isn't a single opening between the trees, they're all twisted together. Even the Wraiths can't sneak in. We don't have any news from the inhabitants. It's like the forest has decided to segregate itself."
That was the longest thing she had heard the alternate Hanso say. Although she couldn't see his face, she thought that he might be getting bored too. Encouraged, Brynn kept questioning him.
"That's a pity, with all the magic users in the Woods. Hasn't anyone tried to contact them?"
"There is really no way to send anything in or out of those woods. Believe me, I've tried."
"What about the Darigan Citadel? They have great mages." She coughed again and rubbed her eyes, which were prickling from the fumes in the atmosphere. Nightsteed seemed unaffected.
Hanso pointed at the sky to the Southeast. "Do you see that darker patch of clouds?" Brynn couldn't see anything apart from clouds and more clouds. "We think the Citadel might be in there. When Xandra sent them her demands, they put up a barrier and flew away without waiting for her to try anything else. Then the clouds became thicker and the Citadel disappeared altogether. I heard that a bunch of nobles from Brightvale managed to hop on before it left."
Brynn tried to say something else, but she choked, her eyes watering. She nearly lost her balance when Nightsteed abruptly made a U-turn and leapt on top of a rock.
"We've got company." Screeches were heard in the distance and Brynn saw a squadron of Wraiths steadily moving towards their position. "They seem to have realised that you are travelling with me," Nightsteed told Brynn. "If they attack us, more will join in."
"Why don't we separate for a while?" said Hanso. "You will lead them further into the volcanic fumes to create a diversion, while I take Brynn west for a while. Once you've managed to lose them, we'll meet on the way south."
Nightsteed snorted. "Deceit drips from your every word, thief."
"That's not a bad plan, actually!" said Brynn.
"Will you manage if I leave you with the rogue?"
Brynn considered the idea. Hanso had sounded more amiable in the past few moments, and surely he wouldn't attempt anything fishy if he knew Nightsteed would come back for them. "We'll be fine. Let's do this."
They dismounted and hid in a nearby crevice until all the Wraiths had gone after Nightsteed. Hanso actually smirked. "Those big goofs haven't even noticed that you're not with Nightsteed anymore! Even when they're fast, they're slow."
Brynn looked around at the landscape again; the absence of any sign of civilisation was getting on her nerves. This world was emptier than a ghost town.
"Why haven't we seen a single village or settlement? That's not normal."
"Isn't it obvious? As long as we're on the Wraiths' hunting grounds, you won't see any sign of civilisation. We'll have to avoid their nests. It's a good thing they're not too active at this time of day. Follow me, I know those plains."
He led her over a long stretch of craggy ground, leaping nimbly over every obstacle; she slipped and stumbled over rocky slopes to keep up with his pace. She wished that she could see his face, even just a glimpse of it, to make sure that he wasn't luring her into a trap. Lost in thought, she tripped over a rock and nearly fell. Hanso took one look at her, snickered and kept walking. She hissed indignantly. Did he think it was easy to navigate this strange land? He was already familiar with every crack and crevice there was to trip over! She was perfectly capable of catching up with him and going even faster.
Brynn picked up the pace in a strange gait, half-running, half-jumping over obstacles while being as quiet as possible. The next time Hanso turned to look at her, she pretended to be walking at a leisurely pace, then hurried up again as soon as he looked away. She had caught up with him in a minute.
"Oh, hey," she said as if she had just noticed they were at the same level, "are you slowing down?" She speed walked past him with a smirk, wondering what he would do or say to retaliate. Still firmly focused on the ground beneath her feet, she reached the top of the hill they were climbing and paused to take in the view. She froze.
Hanso arrived behind her, breathing calmly. "We made it."
Tall skyscrapers stood out against the horizon far away, rising through the dense clouds. Outside the city, tiny flying specks could be seen diving into gangs of Wraiths and firing energy bolts.
"Is that Neopia Central?"
"Yes." Hanso smiled as he gazed at it. "It's still independent from Xandra. The Defenders are constantly fighting Wraith invasions so the inside of the city is a bit messy, but it's easy to melt into the population. The Wraiths that do get in have a nice meal in the slums and go back out."
Brynn clenched her fists. Somehow, she didn't think that was the way to Xandra's headquarters.
"You were leading me north the whole time."
"Neopia Central is really the safest place for you to go. It would be heavenly compared to what awaits you in Xandraland."
"Well, thank you very much for guiding me," she said frostily. "I think I'll find my own way from now on." She turned away and began to walk down the hill.
"No - Brynn, wait! We could easily go and live there! No one would bother us." He caught her arm and pulled her back towards him. "Morphing potions! If we used morphing potions, we could start over!" He stared intently into her eyes, determined to make her see his point.
"As I have been trying to tell you, I have a home to get back to. I don't care which city you choose for me to live in, I just don't belong here, and I will find a way out!"
"No, you don't understand!" He held her shoulders tightly. "I've been waiting for so long, stuck in that place, obeying Xandra's every whim in the hope that I would see you again some day! I couldn't believe my eyes when I found you. I just had to get you to safety as fast as possible, to somewhere Xandra couldn't find you, and the rebel base was the only place I could think of. Now that I have you back, I can finally get away from that hag!" He took her hand, pleading. "We can escape together, Brynneth!"
Brynn's eyes widened. So he had been using her as a substitute. "You don't have me back, you met me for the first time just a few hours ago. Dragging me around your world will not make up for whatever happened to my counterpart." She shook herself out of his grip. "Especially not if you lie to me!"
Hanso's face returned to its emotionless mask. "Don't tell me you're surprised. You're travelling with the number one scoundrel on the continent, remember? The rascal who makes your money run out, the scallywag who makes all your stuff go mouldy, the reason nobody can have nice things." His jeering voice followed her down the hill. "What do you think I am, some kind of hero?"
"As a matter of fact, that is what I think you are." She faced him again. "In my world, you are the one who sacrificed himself to defeat Xandra. Queen Fyora herself reversed your petrification as soon as she came back to life and gave you an official job. You're famous and lovable and the Faeries pamper you. That is why I know you as a good person."
He was struck speechless, then smirked bitterly. "How cute is that. Doesn't it just melt your heart? But it's not how this guy works, oh no. This guy pretends to be attacked by Wraiths and captures the magic user that comes to the rescue."
Brynn glowered at him and walked away briskly, swishing her tail. Hanso followed.
"I'm the one who deals with black market traders to lure them out. I'm the one who steals weapons from civilians so that they turn to Xandra for protection."
Brynn growled and broke into a run. He pushed her up against a crag, laughing hysterically. "I kidnapped children. She sent me to kidnap children with magic talent, and I did. I like children, but you probably know that already, don't you? It was either them, or destroying the only person who'd ever believed in me, and I chose to go after them. Is that what your hero sounds like? Is it?"
She shuddered in disgust and made to move away, but he pressed her firmly against the rock.
"Aaaw, look at you getting all angry," he purred, looking straight into her eyes.
She punched him.
He stumbled back and fell over.
Brynn clapped her hand over her mouth, shocked at the amount of strength she had used. She had only meant to knock him back by a step or two. "I'm so sorry!" she stammered.
He was cradling his jaw where a new bruise was already forming, his eyes closed, looking almost contented. "It's fine. You don't know how much I've missed this," he whispered.
"Crazy?" He laughed a wheezy, broken laugh. "The whole world is crazy, Brynn. And it's all thanks to me!" He pointed at the looming clouds. "I created this! Everything you see! Just with one lousy artefact that I couldn't steal back!"
She found him strangely repulsive, a pitiful, gaunt wretch sprawled on the ground with his bruises and dirty fur. Her eyes were prickling and a lump had formed in her throat, but she took deep breaths, determined not to break down. She had lost her leaders, her first city, the last people who had tried to protect her, and she was stranded with a stranger, a pale imitation of her partner. It looked like she would never find her way home. How was one Kougra supposed to endure all that?
A rumble of falling stones made her jump. Countless pairs of glowing purple eyes appeared over crags and ridges all around her; growls and screeches echoed between the rocks as the Wraiths began to climb down. Brynn felt for the handle of her sword.
"Hanso? If you know where we could hide, now would be a good time..."
A lone Wraith ran straight at her and she dispatched it with a well-aimed swing of her sword.
The Ixi's strangled laugh had become higher and higher until it sounded like sobbing. "See? It's all crazy! I told you so, I did!"
She slapped him lightly. "Snap out of it!"
He stopped abruptly and took in their situation. "Too many of them," he gasped before seizing Brynn's wrist and sprinting away.
They raced across the moor, the Wraiths hot on their heels. Brynn felt an eerie chill near her back several times, but she didn't take the time to look behind. Every time she tripped, Hanso pulled her up before she had time to fall. She soon began to do the same for him as the Wraiths gained ground on them. All thoughts of betrayal had been replaced by the will to survive.
They scrambled down a slope and Brynn realised that they were heading straight towards the twisted mass of the Haunted Woods. Suddenly, enormous clumps of tangled roots burst from the ground in front of the woods and began to slash through the air like vicious thorny tentacles.
"We'll... be trapped... between them!" Brynn managed to utter between heavy breaths.
"That's... the idea," Hanso replied.
She pulled him sharply to the side to avoid a bunch of tangled vines; the ground shuddered when the roots hit it. A low rumble could be heard coming from the forest, almost like a growl. The Wraith's screeches were becoming higher and more impatient and sounded like they were coming from right behind Brynn.
A gigantic root came crashing down on them, but Hanso pulled Brynn out of the way at the last moment and they tumbled into a dip in the ground. They lay spread-eagled, catching their breath. Brynn recovered faster than him and sat up to peer out. The Woods' feelers were mercilessly swatting the Wraiths away, dissolving them into wisps of smoke with every blow. The Wraiths didn't stand a chance; the entire herd was wiped out in less than a minute.
She rested for a few moments, listening to Hanso's heavy breathing slow down. She was just glad to be alive. If she had come this far, she could continue.
"I'm going to find Nightsteed," she said. "I don't care what you say."
"You won't find the fortress without me."
"Then come with us."
"No, please." He was curled up with his arms around his knees. "I don't want to go back to Xandra, I can't do this anymore, please, please don't make me go back," he whispered. He sounded exhausted.
Brynn was surprised, remembering how he had boasted his exploits. Was this another trick? "You don't have to go back," she said gently, "you can show me the way. Just help me a little. Please."
Hanso remained silent for a moment, with his face in his hands. She wondered why he might still be reluctant.
"I don't want you to leave," he whispered.
She was suddenly overwhelmed by the urge to comfort him. Nabile had warned her against meeting her friends from Brightvale, as she would have to leave them again. It was unfortunate that Hanso had met her after spending years in the same place as her petrified counterpart. Brynn nearly put her arm around him, then remembered where she was from. Despite his sorrow, she couldn't let him guilt her into staying.
"Hanso, I want you to imagine something, or just to remember it from before the Ruin: a world with Faerie magic. If there was a person who had an opportunity, however small, to go and live in that world, would you deprive them of that chance?" A sigh was the only reply she got. "I'm going. You're welcome to come and help. I won't blame you if you decide to part ways here."
She clambered out of the hole and emerged from the ground right between two sets of twisted roots; they were motionless, but a low rumble coming from the forest told her that it was time to leave. She began to walk towards the Southeast, not looking back; her legs ached after covering so much distance. She hoped that the commotion caused by the Wraiths had alerted Nightsteed to her position. Indeed, the ominous silhouette of the undead Uni soon appeared on the horizon. When they met, each of them bowed politely.
"I take it you ran into some trouble," said Nightsteed. He was heaving, his flanks foamy with sweat - Brynn wondered how an undead Uni could sweat. The long run and the fresh air seemed to have done him good after all that time spent guarding Jazan underground.
"The trouble got blown into smithereens."
"I am not surprised to see that the thief deserted you. Fear not; between the two of us, we still have a chance to find the fortress."
Brynn's stomach sank. So Hanso hadn't followed her. She didn't look immediately, still hoping that he would arrive, and took a drink of water from the flask in Nightsteed's saddlebag. She glanced behind at the way she had come: nothing.
She sighed. Maybe it was for the better. Her presence didn't seem to be doing him any good.
Then a furtive silhouette shuffled out from behind a rock and walked very slowly towards her.
A light smile appeared on her face. She offered him the flask of water; he accepted it wordlessly and took a swig. They climbed onto Nightsteed's back and the Uni started off again, at a slow pace to recover from the long run.
To be continued...