Second Chance: Part Seven
Hanso left some money for Laela under the pillow, then they crept out through the window and made their way across the dark, chilly moor. There was no sunrise to be seen in alternate Neopia, just a slightly softer light filtering through the clouds. Now so close to her way home, Brynn was lost in thought, running the layout of the corridors outside Xandra's study through her mind. She hoped that her absence hadn't caused too much of a mess back home. She glanced back towards the tavern several times, but no one was following them. The many Wraiths lurking in the vicinity ignored her completely thanks to the fang amulet.
They emerged from a thicket of trees and found themselves in front of the fortress, a towering jumble of rectangular structures that seemed to have been hastily thrown together by an architect under too much pressure. It was an unexpectedly normal stone building, without any evil lights flashing from the windows or ominous flocks of Crokabeks circling above crooked towers. Brynn did notice strange shadows hopping across the rooftops, though.
"It's not entirely made of petrified Faeries?"
"No, only Xandra's apartments." Hanso had stopped to work out the best strategy. He seemed to have finally accepted that Brynn was going to attempt it. "I'll open the back entrance. As soon as we're in, I'll go straight to Xandra and keep her busy. You go straight to that corridor, find your thing and get out. It's not a weapon and it's not a scroll, so it can only be in the storage rooms near the library. Be careful, the entire contents of the Hidden Tower are scattered around the place, and you never know what's lurking."
"I'll be out of your hair soon," said Brynn with a confident smile.
She strode off towards the fortress, but Hanso caught her in a hug from behind. "Promise you'll go straight to your exit. No detours, no playing hero."
"Why did you decide to help me, in the end?" she asked curiously.
He squeezed her a little tighter. "I've been thinking of that other Hanso from your world. If he's anything like me, he would hate to lose you."
They crossed the open ground around the fortress at a run, stopping only at the foot of the robust outer wall. There was no door, only a string of carvings that formed a door-sized rectangle. Hanso pressed his hand against that part of the stone and it vanished instantly. After they had stepped through, Brynn glanced at the opening to see it melt back into a solid wall.
They stood on a vast expanse of nothingness, lit by an unseen source. As she followed Hanso, Brynn tried to decide whether the floor was black marble, basalt, obsidian or even solid Wraiths, but the complete lack of sound or reflected light forced her to accept that she was standing over an abyss which could absorb her just as easily as the sound of her footsteps. What if she fell in? What if she could never go home? She could feel the void rising up like water around the narrow bridge of solid ground they walked on; cold, intangible things crept out of it, making her fur bristle. She couldn't see them, but she knew they were all around her, sneaking closer even as she walked faster. Something grinned in her peripheral vision. A cold feeler wrapped around her ankles.
She cried out. "They've got me!"
"No, they haven't." Hanso kept walking with his gaze fixed straight ahead.
She dared to look behind. The fiendish grinning face was inches from her.
"Just keep walking! They won't touch you, and even if they did, you have that blessing."
Blessing? She had no blessing, she was all alone in the dark, far away from home and with no one to call, waiting for the monsters to step out and finish her off. She yelped when something jumped out of the darkness and grabbed her wrist, but it was warm and firm and pulled her forwards until she reached a normal, solid floor and her knees gave out. Hands rubbed her back vigorously until her teeth stopped chattering.
"Why aren't we running?" she asked, breathless.
"There's nothing. You can look," said Hanso.
She did so and was startled to see a perfectly normal entrance hall with a flagged stone floor. There were even stained glass windows that she hadn't spotted outside.
"They wouldn't attack you while you were wearing the fang," Hanso reminded her. "It was all in your head. They feed on fear, and you gave them a nice little meal."
How embarrassing for a tough warrior to be terrified of nothing. She hadn't even thought of using her sword. Brynn was mortified. "You couldn't have told me earlier?"
"It's worse if you anticipate, trust me."
Brynn straightened up, adjusting her cloak and sword. Hanso took the Wraith fang from her neck. "I'll need this, sorry. My boss will lose her last string of sanity if she doesn't get a new one soon. Will you be all right, now that the worst is over?"
She nodded. He led the way into the next hall, where he went towards a staircase. "Follow that corridor, take the door on the left before the stairs, then keep going until you find a place that looks familiar. If something moves, ignore it. Stay focused on your goal. I hope we don't see each other again, for your sake."
"Thanks," she said, and she really meant it.
He gazed at her, burning her image into his memory for the last time, then they went their separate ways.
After her encounter with the Wraith room, Brynn understood why there was no squad of burly mercenaries guarding the place: nobody in their right mind would even try to sneak in. If that was the back entrance exclusive to Xandra's henchmen, she couldn't imagine what the front entrance was like.
Brynn jumped when she saw Xandra's face on her right, but it was only a portrait. The corridor was filled with low quality stained glass windows and botched paintings, all attempting to depict Xandra banishing the Faeries. One of the paintings was unfinished, with a dark stain covering the last corner of blank canvas.
Glowing things floated across the corridor, near the ceiling. Brynn thought of more Wraiths, but those turned out to be ghosts. They paid her no attention and simply crossed through the walls, some of them holding various items like lists, scrolls and trays of food.
She reached the door that Hanso had mentioned and took the handle, then she froze: heavy footsteps could be heard on the other side. A Wraith? A guard?
"Here, kitty kitty!" said Balthazar's voice.
Brynn wouldn't have time to go back down the corridor, so she bolted down the stairs as silently as she could. She heard the door creak open and the heavy footsteps come to a stop. The Lupe sniffed the air and immediately went for the stairs as well. Brynn darted through the nearest door and found herself squeezed into a broom cupboard. Balthazar stopped right in front of her. She curled up tightly in a corner, her heart pounding; then he started walking again and the sound of his footsteps faded away. She let out a deep breath.
Several minutes passed in which she didn't dare move a muscle, but there was no sign or sound of Balthazar coming back. Brynn cracked the door open by an inch and peered into the corridor before stepping out. She was in yet another underground stone passageway, this one cold and cobweb-filled. More blank-faced ghosts floated around; she noticed that they all wore the same chain around their ankles. Brynn didn't remember that Xandra had the ability to control ghosts, so she wondered to whom they answered.
She was about to get back to her search for the mirror when a bloodcurdling scream resounded through the corridor. It came from further down and despite the abundance of ghosts and Wraiths, it was definitely a living Neopian's scream. Cursing under her breath, Brynn raced down the corridor to the next flight of stairs. She half-drew her sword and looked carefully around the corner for signs of Balthazar, but the hunter was nowhere to be seen.
She had reached a long row of prison cells. In the middle was a rough wooden table laden with sinister spiked implements. A cane had been left in front of one of the cells, long enough to poke through the bars. Inside, a tiny, shivering shape lay huddled on the floor. A thick black band pulsed around the prisoner's arm; Brynn realised that it was a miniature Wraith. The other inmates all wore the same armbands and were just as unresponsive.
In a wider section of the corridor, a brighter ghost Kiko hovered near the ceiling, with an impressive bunch of keys hanging from her belt. A ghostly string tethered her to an orb on a pedestal, an orb of purple crystal that Brynn definitely remembered seeing somewhere. The only difference was the glowing green symbol inscribed on its surface.
She gazed thoughtfully at the orb and at the cells, then drew her sword. Hanso had asked her not to make any heroic detours. But this was not heroic, she protested inwardly. This was what any person in their right mind would have done.
"Foolish girl!" rasped a voice in the next cell. "He will come right back!"
Brynn hurried over to look inside. It was a feeble old Ogrin who had spoken, with a bit more strength left in him than the other prisoners. "Go while you can," he added, breathing with difficulty, and Brynn realised that he was Master Alshemar of the Order of the Red Erisim.
"You're too predictable."
Brynn whirled round. Balthazar's hulking form had appeared in the corridor, blocking her retreat. He kicked the cane that still lay on the floor. "I was sure the housemaid had brought in a pet. You heard me play with my toys? You want to join in?"
She planted her feet resolutely on the ground and straightened up. He was sniffing the air again, drool forming at the corner of his mouth. "I haven't smelled meat this fresh since the Ruin. I might come here more often if I get to play with you!"
She clenched her teeth, determined to keep her calm for all the people in those cells.
"Did you predict this?" She heaved the table with all her strength and flipped it over, causing all the sharp tools to tumble over Balthazar. Before the Lupe could recover from the surprise, she smashed the purple orb with her sword. A wave of energy surged through the dungeon. All the ghosts suddenly halted in midair and began to zoom in circles; many of them crashed into Balthazar in a great cloud of greenish smoke. Brynn caught the bunch of keys as it fell from the drifting Kiko. An insane voice rang through the air, cackling: "Free! Free at last!" as a stout smoke figure rose from the shattered orb and dissolved.
Balthazar burst from the ghostly smoke with a roar, dark energy coursing through his flesh. His entire body had grown so much that his head nearly brushed against the ceiling; his bulging muscles looked like they might burst. His enormous fists smashed the table and grabbed an axe. He swung it effortlessly, but Brynn was ready and blocked with her sword. After parrying several times, she managed to chop the axe off its handle. Thin streams of darkness erupted from Balthazar's shadow and looped themselves around her legs; they were instantly dissolved by a flash of pink light from her blessing.
The Lupe pounced; she rolled to the side and tried to knock him out with the pommel of her sword, but Balthazar had grabbed a heavy chain and spun it around. One end smacked against Brynn's head and left her dizzy for a second. That was enough for Balthazar to twist the chain around her waist and bring her down. He dragged her down the corridor. He kicked a door open into a large pit that had been dug right into the earth. The whole space was taken up by a vast, immobile, overfed blob of a Wraith. It wriggled its short tentacles when it saw dinner arrive.
With a savage grin, Balthazar tugged on the chain, but it caught in the doorway. Brynn was holding on to one of the stones in the frame with all her strength.
"I... defeated... the boss of all Wraiths," she gasped as Balthazar pulled harder. She grunted from the effort. Her arms felt as though they would be ripped out if she didn't let go. Little pieces of mortar started to fall from the doorframe. Then Balthazar gave a mighty heave and the stone gave out. Brynn was hurled through the air with so much force that she landed on the Lupe's shoulders. She rammed the stone into the back of his head.
"It's not some puffed-up bounty hunter who'll bring me down!" She jumped back. The towering Lupe swayed back and forth. His eyes rolled back into his head, then he fell right on the Wraith, sinking into its mushy mass. Immediately, the enormous creature screeched in delight and wrapped more tentacles around the hunter. Brynn staggered back into the corridor, shutting the door behind her.
Without wasting a moment, she gathered up her sword and the bunch of keys. Her first stop was Alshemar's cell, which opened with a satisfying click. She pried the Wraith armband off the venerable Ogrin, who gasped in relief when it dissolved.
"Go now! I'll take care of the rest," he told her.
"I'll just open the others -"
"Go!" He grabbed the keys from her hand and pointed at the door with all the authority of a master mage. She nodded and ran off, hoping they would be all right.
"Xandra?" Hanso looked around the sorceress's study, wondering where she had strolled off to this time. He remembered to check under the desk and inside the wardrobe, but there was still no sign of her. A small heap of grey powder lay on the floor: the previous Wraith fang had already disintegrated. It was high time she got a new one. Hesitantly, he opened the curtain that closed off the statue collection. All the statues were uncovered. Their velvet drapes lay on the floor, neatly shredded into ribbons. That was new. He gazed at the petrified Brynn for a moment, making sure that she was intact; then he went off again to search for Xandra before she did anything weirder.
He found her in the empty drawing-room, an unusual hiding place. She was crouching near the windows, wrapped entirely in a blanket with only her head sticking out.
"They're coming for me," she said as soon as she saw him.
"Didn't you call anyone to look after you while I was away?" He walked towards her very slowly, carefully not to make any sudden movements.
"No! They're not like you! They would plot against me! Do you have it? The quest. You must bring it!"
"Yes, I have brought it."
Just then, a wave of energy pulsed through the air. Cackling echoed in the distance. Xandra let out a pitiful wail, squirming inside her blanket fort. "It's starting, it's started, they're downstairs! Go and ward them off now, go!"
Hanso had taken the Wraith fang out of his pocket. "Didn't you need this? Judging from your state, it seems kind of urgent -"
"Go!" she shrieked.
"Fine, I'm going, you'll be safe," he said in his most soothing voice. He turned away, but she immediately grabbed his wrist.
"NO! Don't leave me alone!"
He tried to shake her off, but she was gripping his arm tightly with her other hand, pulling him closer. He had to avert his eyes from her haggard face.
"Don't leave me alone!" she shrieked again.
"I just need to go and check that it's safe, I won't be far."
She stared up at him, whimpering. He pulled his hand away tentatively. She didn't lash out, so he walked backwards out of the room and ran off to check what trouble Brynn had got into.
Brynn had found her way into the right set of corridors at last and was actively searching for the mirror that led to her world. There were priceless old Faerie items everywhere and a suspicious amount of school supplies, but nothing she recognised. The next room she tried had windows, so it was definitely not that way. There was a door on the other side, though, so she crossed the room to try that one. Something shifted in her peripheral vision. She froze.
Xandra was in the room, just a few feet from her. She hadn't noticed her at first because of the misshapen pile of blankets wrapped around the sorceress. The Xweetok's wide eyes were fixed on her. Brynn looked around for anything she might use as a shield, but the rest of the room was empty.
Ten seconds passed, then thirty, in which the sorceress did nothing worse than mutter under her breath and stare. Brynn's ears caught a few words. "You again... you can try everything... not taking him back... all mine now..."
Brynn took one step towards the door. Xandra's eyes didn't follow her. She started to walk again, very slowly. She had almost reached the door.
She heard a strange sound coming from the Xweetok. Was Xandra... sniffing the air? She was muttering a bit louder now.
"Faerie..." She sniffed again, more alert.
Brynn's hand was on the door.
Xandra jumped out of her blankets, her eyes fixed on Brynn again. "Faaeeeriiiiie..." She staggered towards the Kougra, dragging her feet. Shadows twice her height rose behind her, becoming darker and more consistent. Bolts of green energy shot out of her hands haphazardly, leaving smoking craters the size of dinner plates in the stone floor.
Brynn rushed out of the door and down the next corridor. She recognised it immediately as the corridor that led to Xandra's study. The mirror should be right behind her, but Xandra was already cutting her retreat. She kept running straight ahead, hoping to reach the skylight, the only exit she knew of. As soon she reached the study, Wraiths appeared on all sides, climbing over each other to be the first to catch her. She hacked at them with her sword. She was almost in the statue room when a burst of black tendrils shot from the floor, wrapped around her limbs and pulled her down. The pink light of her blessing appeared again, but a sudden green flash of magic reinforced her bonds. She was trapped.
Xandra stood over her, breathing heavily. "Where did you come from?" she rasped.
To be continued...