One Way Out: Part Three
As much as Merida loved traveling on the steam ship, she couldn’t believe it when she finally saw the shores of Mystery Island appear off the bow. “Land ho!” she yelled, from her precarious perch up by the steam stack, to anyone who cared to hear, “Land ho!”
She climbed down and set about helping the crew dock at the port. Even though it was still early in the morning when they finally reached the shores, the air was already heavy with humidity. She wanted to run out immediately to start exploring, but there was still so much to do to unload the cargo. As the hours stretched later and later into the day, the humidity soaked through everything. Everyone was sweating and panting, and there was no way to avoid the heat. Even the shade was unbearably muggy.
It was mid afternoon before they could disembark. Merida wanted to take off through the jungle with the Astroblade in front of her, chasing the needle, but Akali held her back.
“You don’t know what could be out there,” he warned her, “Natives could be lurking in the jungle. Pirates. Sunburned tourists.”
“I’ll be fine,” she shook him off and pretended not to listen. However, she hung back behind him as they wove through the bazaar.
The needle brought them at last to a small hut built into the mountainside. The roof was latched with thick palm fronds, and the inside was thick with steam and smoke from the great smoking pot at the center of the room, around which seating areas were gathered. The room was crowded and hot, and the swath of locals inside left little elbow room for Merida and Akali to breathe, let alone navigate.
“Keep your head down, okay? I don’t want anyone to recognize us,” Akali warned as he pushed through the crowd. Merida had to follow very close behind in his wake to move through it. There were so many sights, and smells, and sounds to process in the room--she didn’t quite know where to start. In Terror Mountain, everything was different shades of white. She could think of almost twenty different words to describe snow and ice. But here, everything was different shades of everything: blues and reds and purples, and surely every one of them had a name, or maybe two. She had never seen so much life and color in one place in her life.
“Who’s going to recognize me? I don’t know any of these people,” Merida spat back. But it wasn’t she Akali was afraid would be recognized, it was himself. They only made it halfway to the counter before a harsh, deep woman’s voice yelled out. “Akali Venturus, did you really think you could show your face in here ever again?”
Akali froze in his tracks, his ears turned backwards. Merida bumped into him by accident, jostled by the crowd. It parted for an island Kougra, stepping towards them confidently as if she owned the place. Her tail whipped behind her lazily.
“Calandra, so good to see you. How’s business going?” Akali backed up slowly with his tail between his legs when he saw the Kougra approach, but when he bumped into Merida, she shoved him forwards. Although he kept his voice upbeat and cheery, the Kougra did not smile.
“I told you to leave and never come here again. Or are those instructions too difficult for someone like you, with the brain of a Darttlefruit?”
“No, no, of course, I heard you loud and clear,” Akali’s charm was fading in the presence of this powerful Kougra. Her paws were bedecked with expensive golden and silver bracelets. This was clearly her tavern, and she was not the kind of person who tolerated disrespect, “It’s just… I have a guest with me. From Terror Mountain. Merida, this is Calandra. She owns this place. Owns the whole island, basically. Say hello, Merida.”
Without warning, Akali pushed her in front of him, knocking her off balance. “Hey, watch it!” She hissed at him, and the Kougra Calandra looked over her with a discerning eye.
“A friend of Akali’s is just someone who has not yet been swindled by him,” Calandra warned her, “Your time is only coming quick.”
“Oh, no, Akali’s not like that. He’s helping me immensely. We were in a bit of a tight spot, you see--” Merida started to explain the predicament, but the wise Kougra just shook her head.
“A tight spot? That is the only spot he ever finds himself in. Akali’s home address is between a rock and a hard place. You are young, girl. You have much to learn.”
“I’m not THAT young,” she piped up, “and I know when someone’s deceiving me.”
Akali cleared his throat and brought the conversation away from the topic of his honesty. “Listen, Calandra, I’d only be here if it was an absolute dire emergency. Merida’s brother’s gone missing. We were wondering if, in any of your exploits, you’ve seen hide or tail of him.”
“His name’s Chosek,” Merida butted in, “He’s an Acara, like me, and he’s green, and he’s got a white patch on his paw.”
Calandra thought over his description. She never forgot a face, or a name, and just about half the world had passed through her establishment. If Calandra didn’t know someone, it was because they weren’t worth knowing.
“Normally, child, I would tell you I could not help you. Especially since Akali already owes me so many favors, I would drive you away from this place. But this year, a particularly strange group of travelers has found their way into my tavern. They are lodging in rooms upstairs, and I always hear them talking about something called the Key, day and night, as if no topic could interest them more. Would your brother be in a party like this?”
“That could be him, yes,” her brother’s friends had always been into adventure, like him. And wherever he went, he was always bound to make new friends. Chosek had a smile that felt like home to anyone. But Merida knew nothing about this Key, or about anything of the sort. “Can you take me to them, just to be sure?”
“They are at the corner table over there. They just returned from hiking through the forest. Every day they hike, searching for something, but always come back empty-handed.” Merida nodded her head in thanks and darted off to the other side of the tavern. Akali went to follow her, but the Kougra stopped him. “Not so fast, Venturus. You and I must have a word. How does a selfish fool such as yourself get into the business of helping others?”
Akali just shrugged. “Was I ever really that bad, Calandra? You make it sound as if I’m a criminal.”
“Lying and cheating are both laws you have broken, so yes, you are. You feel unlucky that I found you? You should feel lucky that the Tikaty Pirates did not. They are moored off the coast now. You missed them by mere hours, and they have more beef with you than I do.”
“Hey, I paid them back. In full!”
“But how many out there are still waiting? You should have stayed in retirement. It would have been easier for everyone.”
Akali looked over the crowded tavern, to where Merida was weaving from table to table, searching the crowd. Yeah, it would have been easier for everyone if he stayed in Terror Mountain, but how could he? But as long as the needle was pointing somewhere, there was always a journey to make, something to find. One search only ever led to another piece of the puzzle. And that needle pointed to that young Acara, so how was he to say no to her and give up his livelihood?
“Maybe I just had a change of heart. People can change. People can do good things for other people without being pressed for ulterior motives,” he said.
Calandra didn’t seem convinced. Sure, people changed, but after years and years of watching this Lupe try to find his place in the world, she never saw anyone less prepared for change than him. But she didn’t fight it. “Whatever you say.”
Across the restaurant, Merida pushed ungracefully through the crowd towards the back tables. “Sorry, sorry, excuse me,” she apologized, while shoving everyone out of the way. She knocked into an Eerie, who spilled his drink on his front feathers. The stranger glared at her, but Merida slipped away quickly. “My bad!”
She finally made it to the back corner table, where a cluster of ‘pets gathered around to play a game of Cheat. An Acara with his back to the wall put down two cards. “Two tens,” he said. He wore a plinth hat to shade his face, but Merida recognized his voice: bright and friendly, it sounded the way a smile looked.
“Chosek!” she cried out, almost knocking over the table. Her brother’s head shot up from the table, looking up at his sister for the first time in a year and a half. He had been smiling, but at the sight of her, it melted to an expression of astonishment.
“Merida? How did you get here?” he asked, and she ran around the table to hug him tight around the middle.
“Chosek, oh, I thought I lost you! You never came back, so I came looking for you!” it was so good to see him again! He smelled like the jungle and the steamy air, but somewhere, under all of that, she could still smell her brother.
“Didn’t you get my letters?” he asked. Sure, Merida received a few letters. They were vague and uninteresting, never containing any information about his adventures. There never was a return address either. It was like her brother didn’t want to be found. All she could hope was that he would find whatever it was he was looking for, and when he did, he would come home.
“I’m just happy you’re alive and okay. And now that I know that, I can take you home,” she started to pull him away from the table, but Chosek wouldn’t budge.
“I can’t leave now, Merida. We’re so close! I can’t leave my crew behind, not now,” he looked around to the ‘pets sitting with him at the table, who stopped their card game.
“So you’re okay with leaving family behind, but not these guys?” Merida felt hurt. Wasn’t he happy to see her? Didn’t he want to go home? It was all she could think about! She worried about him! But now, Chosek just smiled at her.
“If we find this Key, then it will all be worth it. And it’s somewhere in this jungle. Just a few more days, I promise. Then we’ll be on the next boat back to Terror Mountain, with just a few short stops along the way.”
“What’s so important about this key thing, anyway? So important that it took you away from me?” she asked. Chosek looked to his party, cleaning up their cards.
“It’s not good to talk about this in such a public place. Come on upstairs, I’ll show you everything.”
Chosek grabbed his bags and paid his tab, then headed up to the rooms above the tavern. He and his crew rented out three small rooms in the main hallway. When he unlocked his door, Merida could see exactly how long her brother had been searching through the forests and tombs of Mystery Island. His clothes spilled out of his suitcase, part folded, part hanging in the closet, another part cast upon the floor; maps, hand-drawn and printed alike, overflowed from the desk; the bed lay unmade. Her brother was never one for tidying up, especially when he was off chasing fantasies, and here was no exception. The other half of the room belonged to his roommate, an Aisha named Tarel, who had been playing cards with them downstairs.
Chosek stumbled through his mess until he found a faded map on the end of his four-poster bed and unrolled it.
“This map was found in a treasure chest by the ruins of Maraqua,” he showed it to her.
“What was it doing there?” she peered at the map. It was mostly illegible, the ink faded in parts, the drawings sparse and unclear. She wasn’t entirely sure if he was holding it right side up.
“We have a theory that it was placed there by the previous owner, hoping it would be lost forever. It tells the location of a Key which, when used, unlocks a door to a hidden world.”
“Hidden world? Where?” In the back of her mind, Merida thought. If someone wanted this map so lost, then they must have had a good reason. Why would Chosek waste his time digging up someone else’s troubles?
“Well, I don’t know, do I? It’s hidden. But somewhere in this forest, the Key waits. It was intended to be the best-kept secret of all Neopian history. A place untouched over years of turmoil, a place where no one suffers or goes without. It’s a utopia, cut off from the rest of the world. If we can find it, then we can take their secrets and learn to prosper, too.”
It would take years to comb this jungle to find a hidden key, no matter how much her brother desired it. Desire? That was it! Merida sat up and began to dig enthusiastically through her bag. “I could help you find it. I know how. I could lead you there right now!”
“I know you want to help, Merida, but we’ve been searching through this forest for a while now. It’s impossible for anyone to really know where it is.”
“No! I have this,” Merida at last found the shiny edge of the astroblade and extracted it from the bag. The needle spun wildly around, confused which way to point now that Merida found Chosek, “It will tell you where to find what you desire most.”
She closed her eyes and breathed deep, holding the blade before her. She thought of nothing but the key, although she did not know what it looked like, and she took on her brother’s desire. At last, the silver needle slowed, and finally stopped. She opened her eyes. It pointed west.
“What’s west of here?” she asked. Her brother stared, dumbfounded, at the device.
“Uh, jungle. And a small tomb. But we checked there,” he said.
“Maybe you didn’t know what you were looking for. Can we go now?”
Her brother was probably exhausted. He spent all day searching through the jungle with his crew. The blade never told her how far she had to travel, only the direction. But Chosek straightened his hat and stood up from the bed.
“I’ll gather the crew. Let’s go now. You can lead the way.”
To be continued…