One Way Out: Part Five
Mayor Nicklaus wasted no time in gathering the group together for a tour of the town--the town, he just announced, was Jelly World. Chosek walked alongside Nicklaus during the tour. Merida thought the idea of Jelly World seemed silly--a world completely made out of jelly! How wonderful was that?--but she stared in fascination at all of the buildings.
“This is truly fascinating! A whole hidden world made out of food. Of course you don’t have famine or war--everything you have is around you. Food for miles!”
“I bet this wasn’t what you were expecting, Akali,” Merida caught up to her friend along the pathway. He hung close enough to the mayor to hear what he was saying, but far enough back that he could make up his own mind about things.
“It certainly was a surprise. I was expecting somewhere like Moltara: dark and hidden away. Not like this,” he gestured around them, “It’s almost as if we’re above ground.”
“What do you mean, we’re not above ground?” Merida looked up at the sky, which was almost yellow with the setting sun.
“Huge caves and caverns exist underneath almost every continent. They’re rich with mineral deposits. As long as you have a good enough ventilation system and a well-designed mirror system to increase the amount of sunlight coming from fissures in the roof, you could live down here just as you could on the surface. Where did you think we were? This place certainly isn’t on the surface of Neopia. Someone would have found it by now if it was.”
“We… we... “ Merida struggled to think of a worthy answer. They could have been magicked into this place, which existed outside of space and time, “We could be in another dimension! That strange room we found--the way it shook--that’s the best explanation I can think of.”
Akali shook his head. “I think that’s what the builder of this city wanted you to think. I mean, it’s all in the name. Jelly World… someone wants you to think you’re far away from home.”
“But why would they do that?”
Akali didn’t answer, for their party reached the Mayoral Palace. They were only twenty minutes into their arrival and already a great feast was being planned. And what a relief! Merida could hear her stomach mumbling and grumbling. She was starving, and in a place literally made out of food.
Mayor Nicklaus led them through the cavernous halls of the palace. Each room was made of a different flavor of jelly, and the decorations were inlaid with swirls of flavors. Once, Merida had a dream she lived in a mansion made of cake. Each level was a different layer: chocolate, vanilla, raspberry, pistachio. Waking up after that dream to a dismal cave was miserable. Instead of frosting, she was surrounded by frost. She suddenly feared that this entire trip was a dream, too, and she would wake up back in Terror Mountain alone. To assure herself of reality, she clung to the back of her brother’s jacket like she used to when she was a kid. Her brother was still interested in talking to the mayor, however.
“So of all things, why jelly?” he asked the mayor.
“That story was lost to time, unfortunately,” Nicklaus answered, “But we have a plentiful supply of it here. It’s just about the only natural resource we have. Of course, we make do.”
“So why didn’t you share any of it with the rest of the world?” Merida butted in.
“Merida, don’t ask questions. I’m trying to talk to the mayor,” Chosek hissed at her, “and let go of my jacket. You’re going to make me trip.”
The Mayor must not have heard her question, or decided not to answer. Instead, he stopped at a set of magnificent doors made of emerald jelly. She could almost see the room beyond through them.
“Ladies and Gentlemen, let the feast begin!” at last, the doors swung open, and she could see the table laden with utensils, plates, and the most grand feast Merida had ever seen. Back at Terror Mountain, the food was hard to come by; on the ship, there was always enough to eat but it often lacked flavor. Here, the fabulous smells made her dizzy with hunger. Every piece of food was made of or encased in jelly.
She sat across from her brother to the left of the Mayor. Akali sat to her right. The food was delectable, but it was difficult to tell where the food stopped and the plate began. As Merida dug into her meal, she accidentally started eating pieces of the table. She didn’t speak for a while as she filled her stomach, but Akali did.
“Do you get out to the outside world much?” he asked, cutting his green jello cubes up with the side of his fork.
“Oh, not at all,” the Mayor laughed, “Why would we leave? This is our home!”
“That’s what I thought too. But now that I’ve seen the world, I can’t imagine just staying in one place my whole life,” Merida explained through mouthfuls, “There’s just so much to do, so many colors to see, foods to eat…”
“Well I’m sure you’ll find lots to see and do and eat here in Jelly World,” the mayor assured her. He didn’t quite gobble down the food like the hungry travelers did. He sat up straight and picked at his food deftly with a spoon.
“Oh, certainly,” Chosek dabbed at his face with his napkin, “I’m going to miss it when we head back.”
The mayor dropped his spoon in his bowl with a clatter. Most of the dining party stopped eating at that point, but Merida kept on trucking through the meal. Akali slowly finished slurping up his cube.
“What are you talking about, leaving?” the mayor said, “you can’t leave.”
“What do you mean, we can’t leave?” Chosek crossed his arms, “If there’s a way in, then there’s a way out.”
“But you’ve seen our town. You know how to find it. How do we know you won’t bring back people who will cause us harm? Our town is made completely out of jelly. Our infrastructure is incredibly fragile. If the wrong people were to come, it could destroy everything we are. We cut ourselves off from the world to keep our world safe. And all we ask is that our residents do the same.”
All of the governors to the mayor are listening in on the conversation now, and when they heard that, they all started muttering amongst each other. Chosek shifted in his seat uncomfortably, looking around at them. Finally, he stood up. “I think it’s time we got going. Your hospitality has been gracious, but we wouldn’t want to overstay our welcome. Merida, grab your pack.”
Merida reached for her backpack on the back of her chair, but the mayor stood up and held out his arms to stop them. “Welcome or not, you aren’t going anywhere. No one enters Jelly World and leaves to tell the tale.”
“Maybe not yet,” Chosek stood up from the table, but two sets of police officers descended upon each of the travelers, standing behind their chairs. Two of them grabbed Chosek’s paws and handcuffed them together. “Hey! Release me!”
“Please take our guests to their rooms,” the mayor instructed them, “maybe then they will see the error of their ways.”
Akali jumped out of his chair and swiped at a guard, a large jelly purple Skeith; his paw went right through him, not hurting him at all. The Skeith just laughed and tied his paws together. “Hey! Let me go!”
They grabbed Merida, too, and all of Chosek’s team, tying them up and marching them out of the room while the governors just watched. Merida tried to fight against her bonds, but it was no use. They took her pack away from her and marched her up the stairs, deep into the mansion. Akali walked beside her, his head hung low.
“Hey, at least think of it this way,” she said, trying to cheer him up, “Maybe if the bars of our jail cells are made out of jelly, we’ll be able to eat our way out.”
Even though it was funny, Akali didn’t quite feel like laughing. There was a growing feeling of dread deep in his stomach, and it probably wasn’t a result of the food.
If there was a real jail in Jelly World, the travelers never saw it. Instead, they were locked up in a small bedroom at the top floor of the mansion. Without their possessions or dignity, there was little to do. Akali paced back and forth, trying to come up with an escape plan. Chosek sat on the edge of the bed, his head buried in his paws. His greatest discovery would also be his last, and worst of all, no one would ever hear about it. Merida lay on the floor, staring up at the jelly ceiling. The room was lemon-flavored. This wouldn’t be such a bad place to end up for the rest of eternity, she thought. At least she had the chance to see the world before being imprisoned here. And there was always lots to eat, and the locals might have looked funny but they were alright. Still better than the mountain. It was much warmer here than it was there.
Akali kept pacing. He tried not to step on Merida, but she was in his way. He stepped over her with every lap of the room. “There’s got to be a way out. We’re the only non-jelly people here. They couldn’t possibly keep all of their visitors for all time.”
“We’re the only non-jelly people because we’re the first in the world to discover it,” Chosek lamented. He stared at a pillow, which he hugged close to his chest for comfort. “My finest achievement, my greatest work, finding and discovering the Key--and now it’s led me to ruin!”
“It’s led us all to ruin,” Tarel the Aisha corrected him, “you’re not alone in this. We helped you find it. We helped you get here. Your sister’s the real brain trust here. If it weren’t for her, we never would have found the Key.”
“Maybe that would have been for the best,” Chosek sighed, “Merida, I knew it was a bad idea for you to come along. You’re too young. And that compass of yours is just trouble. Dark Magic, if I’ve ever seen it. It’s only purpose was to lead us to ruin.”
“The astroblade isn’t dark magic,” Merida said, “It’s helped Akali out countless times. Hasn’t it, Akali?”
The white Lupe stopped pacing and bowed his ears. “Uh…”
Merida sat up. “What’s the matter?”
Akali’s tail went between his legs. “I mean, sure. The astroblade has always told me where to go. It’s just… it’s gotten me into trouble quite a few times, too. Countless, almost. In fact, I don’t think there’s a soul on Neopia that doesn’t feel cheated by me in some way.”
“What are you talking about?” Merida demanded.
Akali laughed nervously. “That’s always been your best trait, Merida. Finding the best in people. But it’s also your hamartia. You idolized your brother for his charisma and leadership, even after he left you. You trusted me to help you find him, even though I’m severely underqualified for any job that involves helping people. And you trusted the astroblade to help you find your brother, even though you don’t know how it works.”
“I thought you were my friend, Akali,” Merida’s voice was very small, as if it was a hundred miles away.
“I’m no one’s friend. Calandra was right; my only friends are the people I haven’t tricked yet. I’m sorry, Merida. That stupid astroblade and me tricked you into coming here, and it’s all my fault. Maybe that’s why it pointed to you: you were the only person in the world who still believed in me. Now it’s gone and ruined that.”
Akali turned away to the window so he wouldn’t have to look at Merida. She frowned and fell back onto the floor, staring up at the light fixture. Outside, nighttime had fallen. The city was quiet and the buildings refracted the light of the streetlamps in odd shapes.
“The astroblade,” Merida said, a thought forming in her mind.
“Yes, that’s right,” Akali said, “that infernal contraption. I ought to just throw it out this window and be done with it.”
“No, Akali, don’t you get it?” she sat back up and climbed to her feet so she could sit closer to the bed, “The astroblade can save us!”
“What? That compass thing? I thought we decided it was dark magic, not to be trusted,” Chosek peered out of his paws to see what his sister was doing.
“Good thing I didn’t leave it in my backpack. I was so afraid of losing it, I put it in my front pocket,” she said, and pulled it out, “What I desire most is a way out. So if I just think about that, the astroblade should guide us! Then we can make our escape!” she opened the golden cover and concentrated as hard as she could on her mountain home. As cold as it was, there were things she missed; the Advent season in Happy Valley, the friendly shoppers, ice skating on the pond with her brother, the way the light hit the icicles and cast rainbows in the snow… the harder she concentrated, the more the needle spun, until at last it stopped. She opened her eyes. Everyone was gathered around, trying to decipher the meaning. For the compass didn’t tell you what to do, only in which direction to travel.
“I don’t know about you guys, but this one seems pretty obvious to me,” Chosek said.
The needle was pointing right at the window. Five stories off the ground.
To be continued…