One Way Out: Part One
Kalbad’s Kiosk sat on the southern end of Terror Mountain, hidden from the wind in an alcove behind a glacier. He was a lumpy old Gnorbu with a temper, but at least he was buying whatever the scavengers of the mountain were selling. Merida stood in line with the other scavengers, waiting as an old Mynci tried to convince Kalbad his load was worth the money. Kalbad handed him a hoof-ful of coins and waved him away, ringing the bell. Merida pulled her scarf away from her mouth and heaved her bag onto the table.
“What is it this time?” Kalbad growled with a low rasp. He was almost as wide as he was tall, and his stubby legs struggled to hold up his own weight. Merida dumped the contents of the bag out. She spent all day scavenging around the edge of the mountain to find these things. Some of the riskier scavengers snuck into the Snowager’s cave, but Merida was still too young to be that foolish. She made do with what the residents of Happy Valley left behind, or at least what she decided they didn’t need. Was it stealing? She didn’t like to dwell on that topic.
“I’ve got this scroll clip, Altadorian made, by the look of it. See that sun inscription?” She pointed out the dented clip on the table. On the side, if you turned your head the right way and squinted, it kind of looked like a sun. Kalbad always looked like he was squinting, so it might do the job. “I also found some metal piping, not too rusted. Perfectly usable.”
Kalbad examined all of the objects, admiring them through his thick, bent spectacles. Finally, when he finished, he scooped out a handful of coins from his bag and dropped them on the table. “I’ll take the lot for one hundred,” he said.
“What are you talking about? It’s worth twice that much,” Merida stared at the measly pile of Neopoints on the table. That would hardly be enough for food, let alone all the other things she needed.
“Listen kid. If you want charity, try the Soup Kitchen,” Kalbad scooped the scavenged items into his bag behind the counter. “If you want something decent, you better bring me decent stuff.”
Merida scowled, bit her tongue, and scooped up the coins on the counter. The old Gnorbu never gave anyone a fair deal, but with the Neopian economy in shambles, it was the most anyone could do to stay afloat. This winter on the mountain was the coldest on record since Y4, and no one was visiting or spending money. Then the bank shut its doors after the Pant Devil robbed it, and everyone was left destitute. But what about Neopets like Merida, who barely had a leg to stand on before all this happened? No one had time for charity. Even her brother, Chosek, vanished when things got bad. The moment a slot opened up on one of the harbor boats, he jumped on the expedition to journey to faraway lands, leaving Merida to fend for herself. She was tough, but being alone on the mountain wasn’t easy, not with this weak allowance. She pulled her scarf back over her mouth and set off back up the mountain, ignoring the long line of people all trying to pawn found items off to Kalbad.
Merida took the long way home, along the edge of the bay. A few trading boats docked for the day, but not many. This port used to be bustling and full. Now chunks of ice floated in the water, glaciers making navigation difficult for even the most experienced captains. Today there only was only a tall steamer tied at the dock, with crew scuttling up and down the gangplank to unload old supplies and restock new ones. They were all dressed in crisp blue uniforms obscured with heavy winter coats. As they called out to each other, their breaths condensed in the mountain air. How she wished she could go with them!
She spotted one of the crew members, a white Lupe, crouched behind a load of crates as if he was trying not to be seen. Unlike the others, his uniform was rumpled, and his coat was much dingier than the other ones, as if he scavenged it or couldn’t afford a new one. Although his back was to Merida, she could see that he was hunched over, looking at something in his grasp with great interest. It looked like a compass. Was he the ship’s navigator? She loved to hear about new and exciting places.
“What have you got there?” she asked, and the Lupe jumped in fright, shutting the lid of the compass and stuffing it in his pocked in one fluid motion.
“What? Who are you? Nothing. I was doing nothing,” he blurted, “What do you want?”
Merida was taken aback. “Sorry to scare you. I was just wondering if this here’s your ship.”
“My ship?” he looked to the steamer, “Uh, yes. In a way.” He determined Merida was a non-threat and waved her away. Then he pulled out that compass again, unlatching the top to look at it. Merida looked over his shoulder from a distance. If it was a compass, it was a broken one. It wasn’t pointing North.
“If you’re trying to fix your compass, I could probably help,” she piped up, “I’m very good at fixing things.”
“No, it’s not broken,” he said, “or, maybe it is. It’s pointing at something, but I can’t figure out what,” he looked up from it, and Merida snatched it, turning it around and around. No matter which way she spun it, it always pointed inwards towards her.
“Lots of people have problems with the compass up here. The poles are all messed up. Just about every direction is South,” she explained. The needle didn’t seem to be stuck anywhere. But it enthusiastically pointed right towards her no matter what she did. The Lupe watched her do this, his eyes on the needle. A gear seemed to be turning in his brain.
“It keeps pointing at you,” he remarked.
“Well, it should be pointing towards that mountain,” she explained, “maybe it got demagnetized--”
“What’s your name?” The Lupe suddenly seemed uninterested in the mechanics of his compass and interested in her. “Who are you?”
“My name is Merida Altimari,” She wasn’t sure how to answer the question who are you. Who was she, anyway, but a girl on a mountain, all alone? “I’m nobody. But my brother, Chosek, is an explorer. Maybe you’d be more interested in talking to him, seeing as you live on one of those big ships.”
His face lit up at the sound of Chosek’s name: perhaps, a shared friend. “Chosek Altimari?”
Her head whipped around so fast that her scarf unwound from her neck. “You know him?”
“Well… I know of him.”
Her hopes dropped just as quickly as they rose. “Oh.”
“He’s traveling the world, right? How is he?”
It was almost too painful to answer. This guy was clearly new to the mountain, if he didn’t know about Chosek’s absence. Merida’s connections went far and wide around the underbelly of the mountain. Just about everyone knew about her enigmatic brother. Or rather, they know about his disappearance. As if he fell of the face of Neopia.
This stranger seemed to understand her silence. Then he dropped his voice down low, too low for anyone on the dock to hear. “Listen, I don’t know where your brother is, but I do know how to find him. You see, I’m a bit of a traveler myself. And I think I was supposed to find you.”
“What are you talking about?” Merida wasn’t really following. The Lupe introduced himself as Akali and pointed to the compass still in her hand. As she better examined the design, she realized it was of unusual beauty. It didn’t look like it had been made by Altadorians, or mountain folks, or even faeries. It looked like it had always existed since Y1, or possibly before time. Even then, it was pristine.
“This is an astroblade,” Akali explained.
“Don’t you mean an astrolabe?” Merida asked.
“No, an astroblade. It doesn’t tell you directions; at least not in the conventional sense. Instead of telling you which way you are headed, it tells you where you need to go. That needle points to whatever it is in the world that you need or desire most. If you follow it, then you can find everything you need,” he took it back in his paw and polished it. “For some reason, this thing has been pointing me towards Terror Mountain. Towards you. Do you know why that might be?”
Merida shook her head. She had never been in the presence of such unusual magic.
“I think I was supposed to help you find your brother,” he handed it back to her. Once in her possession again, the needle began to swing around violently, like it was searching for something. Then, it settled to the south. They both traced the needle’s direction off over the horizon, where the bay stretched endlessly beyond. Was it possible that somewhere that way, her brother was waiting for her?
“Merida Altimari, how would you like to go on an adventure?”
To be continued…