Second Chance: Part Six
"After the next clump of trees, turn left behind that boulder."
"Another of your shortcuts, thief?" grunted Nightsteed.
"Looks like a nice spot for an ambush, doesn't it?"
Nightsteed went off the road and inspected the surroundings carefully before taking the way suggested by Hanso. He had done this for every road so far, and Brynn was starting to fall asleep.
"No, wait a minute!"
Nightsteed slowed down. "What now?"
"Ssshh, wait. Hanso Guiding System is recalculating."
Brynn flicked the back of his head.
"Just kidding, you're on the right track."
The Uni groaned and accelerated, visibly eager to be rid of Hanso.
They had spotted a few Wraiths in the distance, but none had deemed them interesting enough to chase. The dirt tracks were clearer and seemed more frequently used in this area. Soon, a small hamlet appeared on the road; it was made of no more than a dozen dingy houses.
"That's the hunters' village," said Hanso before Brynn could ask. "Xandraland is just a little further. We'll have to stop for the night, though."
"Then that is where we must part ways," said Nightsteed. "I would be too recognisable among those people."
"Thank you for everything Nightsteed," said Brynn, "we'll be all right from here. Please give Nabile my regards."
They dismounted at a safe distance from the hamlet and Brynn watched the Uni's figure shrink into the distance, leaving a trail of dust in his wake.
"Why must we spend the night?" Brynn asked while they walked towards the houses. Although she had decided to trust Hanso for the time being, it wouldn't hurt to stay on her guard. "Is the fortress still that far?"
"Oh, we could easily reach it tonight. I really don't recommend sneaking into that place at night, though. It just... well, I avoid spending the night there. You'll have a slightly better chance in the morning." With all his experience in burglary, he was probably right. "We also need to get a Wraith fang. Those things are dead useful; if you wear one, the Wraiths will perceive you as one of them, and a strong one at that. It should deal with your blessing problem."
"How can we get their fangs if they vanish whenever they're defeated?"
"Only the hunters know. Wait here."
Hanso ran off for a couple of minutes and returned with a large piece of cloth that he had pinched from Fyora knows where. He proceeded to drape the cloak around Brynn, carefully tugging at the fabric until he was sure that her face was hidden.
"Is this really necessary?" she asked, annoyed.
"They must not recognise you," he said firmly. "It's bad enough with that Faerie aura sparkling around you. Don't speak a word. Keep your tail tucked in. And stop wriggling your ears!" She rolled her eyes.
Hanso led her to the largest of the houses, knocked twice on the door and whistled. The door was immediately opened by a slender grey Ixi in a practical leather outfit.
"Hanso? What are you doing here, I thought you were back in the dungeon!"
"Laela! Just the lady I wanted to see." He gave her a brief hug. "I'd like a room for the night. I won't make any noise, promise!"
Laela opened the door wider and Brynn saw that she had recent battle scars scattered over one side of her face and her shoulder. "Only one room. Uh, who's your guest?"
"The quiet type. Don't mind him at all," Hanso told her with a meaningful look. Him? Brynn felt offended, even though there was technically no reason to be offended.
Laela nodded and let them in. Brynn noticed that two bunches of delicate grey filaments protruded from her shoulderblades, like clipped feathers. They stepped into a continental version of a Krawk Island tavern, complete with rowdy thugs, sly rogues glancing sideways at the new arrivals, cards and coins on the tables, weapons on every belt and battle scars aplenty. Laela took a key from the wall behind the counter. As soon as she had given it to Hanso, he added:
"Oh yes, I'll need to speak to the boss, too."
Laela groaned. "Hanso! You said you wouldn't bring trouble."
"We won't break anything this time. No, really!"
"I might as well bring him something extra special to make up for letting you in." Laela took a bucket-sized mug and filled it with a brown liquid that Brynn recognised as cold Borovan. Hanso took one sniff of it and began to drool.
"You have Borovan? You never told me you had Borovan. How did you get your hands on Borovan?"
"It's not your Borovan," Laela snapped. She led them across the main room and to a more private lounge behind a curtain. "Boss?" she called, then let out a shriek when a huge furry hand burst from the curtain and yanked her into the room.
Brynn dashed to help, but Hanso held her back.
"Balt, seriously!" Laela's exasperated voice came from behind the curtain. "Stop doing that, you nearly spilled it!"
Hanso decided to poke his head through. "Long time no see," he said with a grin. Brynn followed him curiously into the parlour, where the most comfortable of the tavern's shabby furniture had been gathered.
A blue Lupe was sprawled on a battered luxury sofa; he was so big that the couch was almost completely hidden beneath him. Laela appeared to have been shoved into a plush armchair next to him.
"Laela, what did I tell you about letting in the lackey?" he growled. The girl didn't look scared; he merely gave her a light tap on the head, as if to reprimand a misbehaving Petpet. He focused his attention on Hanso. "I thought I told you not to come back, scum."
"Really? I could have sworn you said "Enjoy your snack, chum". Anyway, you know what business is like."
Balthazar sat up, his huge form nearly filling the whole room. Brynn had to avert her eyes from his enormous bulging muscles, which twitched and convulsed under his shaggy fur as if something was trying to burst out of them.
"What does the puffed-up shrew want?"
"The usual, to-go."
Balthazar opened and clenched his paw. "What does she have to offer?"
"Um... her non-wrath."
"You're not getting anything if you don't buy this time."
Hanso chuckled. "Balthazar, buddy. Do you remember who you're dealing with?" A hint of a threat could be heard under his light tone.
The Lupe looked straight into Hanso's eyes as he spoke. "Yes, I do. Don't tell me she can't do without a Wraith fang for a couple of weeks? I mean, she still has control over everything. Doesn't she?" One corner of his mouth curled into a smirk.
"You don't ask questions here, part-timer. You just do as she says."
"I don't hear her say anything. I haven't inspected my part of the dungeon in weeks, and that seems just fine with her. Why can't she come out here? Is she scared of something?" Balthazar grinned; Hanso had nothing to retaliate. "That being said, I might make an exception if you finally buy an upgrade. It's pathetic that Xanthippe's housemaid is the only scrawny weakling left in the area."
Balthazar opened the top of the coffee table in front of him to reveal a compartment filled with bottles. He pulled out a few and set them on the table for Hanso to browse. They were filled with a dark substance that was not quite liquid, but not vaporous either. Brynn saw the contents squirm and realised that they were bottled Wraiths. Balthazar had found himself a new job after the Ruin.
Hanso rolled his eyes. "Balthazar, please. I don't need a bunch of Wraiths to inflate my ego. Just give me the fang already!"
While Hanso was looking at the bottles, Balthazar's eyes had trailed over Brynn in a way that made her uneasy. His gaze snapped back to Hanso. "If it'll make you go away." He pulled a dozen necklaces from a drawer and picked one out. A single curved grey fang hung from it, almost as long as Brynn's palm.
"Finally! I knew you'd be sensible. I'll let you get back to... whatever you were doing in here." Hanso took the fang and Brynn gladly followed him away from Balthazar. They went up to a small bedroom where Hanso didn't let Brynn remove her cloak until after Laela had brought them their meal.
"He knows," she said immediately. "Of course he noticed me, he's the world's most renowned Faerie tracker. Why did I even follow you in there? It was so stupid!"
Hanso put the Wraith fang pendant around her neck. "I'd have called you stupid if you hadn't followed me. It would have been so easy for me to sell you out."
She ran a hand through her hair. "Yeah, I was still suspicious."
"Ballet-boy gave me the fang way too fast, but he's just tired after his hunting trip. In any case, if you leave early enough in the morning, he'll still be asleep after his midnight prowl. He's supposed to be the keeper of the fortress's lower dungeons, but he's always hanging in this tavern. I've never actually seen him at work."
Brynn nodded and settled on the edge of the bed to scarf down some food. She wondered where they stood at the moment. While Hanso had been reliable enough to bring her very close to her goal, he still had a house full of suspicious characters and a whole night to act. Should she leave him now and find the place herself, or take a chance and get some sleep? Would he help her in the morning, at all?
"So," he asked all of a sudden, "my counterpart from your reality. How'd he manage it?"
"You know. To save the world, and all that."
"Oh, right. Well, at first he pretended to accept Xandra's offer and gave me a big fright. He reached out to shake hands with Xandra, and immediately swiped her artefacts." Hanso raised his eyebrows. "She managed to get one back, but he kept the other. Then he yelled a lot of insults at Xandra and tricked her into overloading the artefact with her magic. He finished it off with a stab of his dagger and they both got petrified." She paused, seized by the memory of the two stone figures.
"He was pretty reckless, wasn't he."
"Coming from you, that sounds ridiculous."
Hanso lay back on the bed with his arms under his head. "It's funny how a split second of hesitation can change everything. I was also planning to nab the artefact whenever I could, then I wasted my only chance, like a loser." He remained silent while Brynn finished her meal.
"Do you...?" he began, once she had eaten up.
"What?" She had stood up and was stretching.
"Do you remember what you told me, right before I went to shake hands with Xandra?"
Brynn frowned, running the scene through her mind again. Then it came to her.
"Oh. You mean what I almost told you." She felt her cheeks go warm. How could she not remember? "Hanso, no! I l-" People still joked about it wherever she went.
"Hey Brynn! You make me l..."
"Brynn, do you even l...?"
"I don't know how it got to the public, but it's probably the most famous unfinished sentence in the history of my world," she concluded.
Brynn glanced at him questioningly.
"Your counterpart... she said the whole thing."
"... ah." She gazed out of the tiny window. She could feel Hanso's eyes on her and it made her uncomfortably warm. He knew more about her than she was prepared to admit. "That must have been awkward."
"It was awful." Hanso had stood up as well; as he paced around the room, words poured out of him like water from a dam. "I had to look into that crazy witch's eyes and pretend that I would follow her, when all I wanted was to turn around and beg you to keep trusting me, and I wanted nothing better than to... to reply, to say something, and then I messed up, and because of me..."
He had stopped abruptly, standing with his back to her. She impulsively wrapped her arms around him. They stood motionless, basking in each other's warmth. Several times, Brynn thought he might turn to face her, but neither of them moved until it was completely dark outside.
"I should let you get some rest," he whispered, gently stepping out of her embrace.
She cleared her throat. "Is it possible to take a bath here?"
"There's something down the corridor. It's really lame."
"Then I won't use it, I don't want to meet anyone on the way. Are you going to use it?"
He looked hurt. "You think I stink?"
"Not really! I mean, well, when was the last time you showered?"
He looked at her very seriously. "Wait until you smell Xandra. When she raises her arms, the Meridell Rubbish Dump faints."
They tried to contain their laughter, failed and collapsed into giggles, gripping each other's shoulders for balance. They laughed for a long time; Hanso was in dire need of a good laugh. After a minute or two, his laughter turned into sniffling, then into choked sobbing. He wept freely in front of her, releasing months' worth of tears. Brynn supported him until he was done.
Dawn found them sitting side by side on the floor. Each had stubbornly insisted that the other should use the bed.
As soon as Brynn opened her eyes, Hanso motioned for her to be quiet. She couldn't see much in the dim bluish light that filtered through the window. He crept towards the door, listening; she took her sword and followed him as silently as she could. He turned the handle very slowly, then flung the door open. A burly Tuskaninny who had been leaning against the other side tumbled into the bedroom and found himself trapped with Brynn's sword pointed at him, Hanso's dagger at his throat and the Ixi's hand covering his mouth.
"Need a map to your room, buddy?" whispered Hanso.
A black fluid burst out of the intruder's mouth and leapt straight at Brynn; while she wrestled it off, the Tuskaninny's arms were invaded by similar dark energy and began to twist around Hanso as if they had turned into boneless tentacles. Brynn hacked off large pieces of the goo, but one crawled over her mouth and nose, trying to seep in and choke her. The Tuskaninny had managed to pin Hanso against the wall when the slime on Brynn's face was dissolved by a sudden flash of pink light. She stomped on the remaining pieces, then knocked the pommel of her sword into the side of the Tuskaninny's head. He collapsed, releasing Hanso.
Brynn prodded the Tuskaninny's motionless arm. "What exactly was that thing?"
"He must have swallowed one or two Wraiths," explained the Ixi. "That's a really annoying power-up, I can't twist their arms anymore."
"Do you think more are coming?"
"Nah, he was stationed there to wake up the other goons if we tried to sneak out early. I wouldn't stick around for too long, though. We should get going."
To be continued...