One Way Out: Part Four
It took some begging and pleading, but Merida convinced Chosek to let Akali come with them. “He helped me all this way. It would be rude not to let him tag along. The astroblade was his, anyway. You have him to thank for finding it.”
“Calm down now, child,” Chosek soothed her, “we haven’t found it yet. But if you really insist, he can come and help carry a pack.”
The rest of the crew was reluctant to believe Merida’s story, and they were already worn out for the day, but they were adventurers and Chosek knew how to draw them together and inspire them. They packed up their day packs and headed out.
The party headed out west, towards the direction of the needle. Merida led the way, watching it carefully and holding it out before her like a metal detector. She moved quickly through the streets. They certainly looked like a strange party, walking through the busy Mystery Island bazaar, the little Acara leading the way with a party of six older explorers behind her. Then there was Akali, following in the back, but watching.
They made it to the edge of the forest to trace the path through to the tomb. The needle seemed to point directly at it. Chosek hacked away at the brambles and vines trailing in their way. Merida followed the needle obediently through the undergrowth. As the sun walked down to the horizon, the late afternoon heat kicked into full force, and the humidity hung in the air like a damp fur coat over them. They brushed the sweat away from their foreheads and soldiered on.
“How much farther, do you think?” The Aisha Tarel asked, but Merida only shushed him. The tomb itself was only a mile off the main road, although deeply entrenched in wilderness. When they finally made it to the front doors of the tomb, the needle twitched, as if to wink at Merida: their key was waiting just inside.
“I’ll take the lead from here,” Chosek pushed forward and opened the door to the tomb with a crowbar. The wood was mostly rotted away, and it crumbled with just a few jabs. Inside, there were no windows, only darkness. Everyone pulled out flashlights, and Chosek lent his spare to his sister so she could see the Astroblade’s needle in the dark.
“How big is this tomb?” she asked, as they began to descend the stairs. It didn’t look like a very big building from above, but most of it was underground. It could stretch on forever under the surface.
“It hasn’t been fully mapped. Natives and archaeologists believe that it was constructed for a native king after his death,” Chosek had done much reading about Mystery Island on the boat journey along the way, “They believed his ghost would haunt any who disturbed his slumber.”
“That’s ridiculous,” Merida scoffed. She wasn’t easily scared by ghost stories, “Ghosts can’t kill anything. They go right through you,” she tilted her flashlight up to the walls, where faded murals depicted ancient Neopets in the island. Someone spent all this time painting this wall no one would ever see. Anyone who would want to look at it, appreciate it, understand it--they were all scared away by the curse.
The stairs ended, and the group stepped into what looked like the first in a series of chambers. It was cool and dark, safe from the intrusion of the sun up above. Merida felt a shiver down her spine; her tropical clothes were too light for this dark cellar. The needle twitched and suddenly darted left.
“Right here!” she waved Chosek and the others towards the spot. They all crowded together on the same step, looking through the darkness to see where it could be. Chosek reached up and dusted off the wall. The mural, so carefully painted, was actually hiding a handle to a panel. When he pushed it in, the panel popped out with a hiss. Behind it hung a small golden key.
“Is that it?” she reached in and pulled it off the hook. “Is this what you’ve spent so long searching for?”
“I must admit, it was smaller than I thought it would be,” Chosek turned the key over and over. Now that he had it, where did it go? Where was the keyhole?
Merida was about to ask the same question when the panel suddenly shut closed. Chosek tapped on it to see if it would open again, but it did not. Instead, the whole wall started to shake. The entire group backed up to see what was happening. A doorway opened up in the wall and revealed a walkway that disappeared into the darkness.
Merida looked to the Astroblade to confirm that this was the direction they were supposed to go. Sure enough, it pointed into the darkness.
The group fell quiet and became much more serious as they stepped into the mysterious hallway. It was only wide enough for everyone to walk in a single file, and was it Merida’s imagination? Or was it sloping slightly downwards?
Chosek insisted on leading the way with the brightest flashlight in one hand and the small key in the other. Merida couldn’t see where she was going past her brother, so she rounded up the back of the party so she could whisper to Akali.
“Where do you think we’re going?” she asked him. The lupe had a pretty good guess, but he decided not to share it. Instead, he just shrugged.
“Well, do you think it’s what Chosek is looking for? A place untouched by the outside world? A utopia?”
“I’m not sure if such a place exists. But I’m pretty sure that whatever your brother is looking for is just up this path.”
Merida didn’t understand. Her brother was looking for this utopian place, but if Akali didn’t believe such a place existed, then how could they be headed right for it? Her head was spinning so she decided just to focus on moving forwards.
There was no way to mark the time as they traveled further and further into the earth. It could have been an hour, it could have been two, before the line finally stopped.
“What’s the holdup?” The Aisha Tarel asked.
Chosek up ahead turned around. “There’s a wall here,” he said.
“A wall? We came all this way for a dead end?” someone cried out.
“Now what do we do?” another said.
“Try the key!” Merida yelled. Chosek’s light turned off and he fumbled for a moment in the dark with the small golden key. They all heard a grinding noise, and suddenly the wall became a doorway to a room lit with two flickering florescent light bulbs. It was wallpapered an ugly chartreuse color. Surely this was not part of the ancient tomb they had just left behind?
Everyone piled into the room to look around. It looked like an old fashioned waiting room. As Akali, the last person in line, entered, the door shut on its own. He spun around and tried the handle, but it wouldn’t budge.
“We’re locked in,” he said, not sounding too surprised. The group began to panic, running to the door to pull on it. But the ground beneath them began to shake with such a ferocity that they all fell to the ground. The florescent lights, already on their last legs, gave a final flicker and extinguished completely. Merida felt a sudden dropping sensation in her stomach as if the room was throwing her around. She hit the ground and shut her eyes tight in the darkness, waiting for it all to be over.
The shaking finally came to a stop, along with the peculiar sensation in their stomachs, although Merida still felt woozy. She opened her eyes to see the florescent lights flicker back to life. Was that it? Was the shaking and the noise finished? It seemed like it was. She pulled herself to her feet but felt as green as the walls. Most of the other members of the group were on the ground. Chosek managed to keep his footing by clinging to a railing sticking out of the wall. Akali was still by the door, looking shaken, but at least he was still upright. Merida bolted for the door to desperately try and pull it open again. Had it been an earthquake? Magic? What caused that awful, awful shaking? To her surprise, the door opened easily, but what was beyond was nothing like the long dark hallway from which she and her comrades entered.
At first, all she could see was orange. As her eyes adjusted to the daylight, she could discern different shades of orange, but still the color was everywhere. The air was stagnant but carried along an almost sweet smell. The light suggested late afternoon into the evening. She stepped out onto the ground. The room she left behind was part of another one of these sunset orange buildings. The late light of the sun reflected off them in an unusual way; sort of as if they were made of glass…
The rest of the group climbed out of the room and looked around at their surroundings. Mouths hung open. Chosek took off his hat and held it by his side. Akali was the only one who didn’t seem utterly flabbergasted to have arrived in such an unusual place. Instead of awe, he frowned at the buildings, like he understood something the others did not. He looked to Merida, but she quickly averted her eyes to the street, where a single individual was hurrying towards them.
“Hello! Hello! It’s been ages since we’ve had visitors,” the stranger said, “Welcome!”
The stranger was a Blumaroo, or at least, he was a Blumaroo-shaped piece of jelly. As he bounced towards them, he wobbled left and right like a gelatin dessert dancing. Merida covered her mouth to stop herself from laughing at their unusual greeting party.
“How do you do?” she said, with a small curtsy.
“I’m just fine, now that we have visitors!” he bobbed around, greeting everyone in the party. “Is that where you came from, then? My, no one’s used that entrance in years… My name is Mayor Nicklaus. Welcome!”
“Mayor?” Chosek said, “Mayor of where, exactly?”
Nicklaus chuckled, an action that sent him wobbling up and down like a mirage. “Why, mayor of Jelly World! Where did you think you were?”
Merida couldn’t hold it in any longer. She let out a roaring laugh that echoed around the buildings and hung in the air for a long, long time.
To be continued…