One Way Out: Part Six
C hosek stared at the hand of the compass, which was enthusiastically pointing off towards the window. After a long day of traveling, he was tired and couldn’t possibly follow the advice of such a perplexing device. It was clear by now that it’s only purpose was to lead them to certain doom.
Merida didn’t seem to think of it like that. She stared at the compass as if there was something inside of it none of them could see or understand, or as if she was considering its suggestion. Finally, she spoke. “Well, we certainly can’t go out that way. It’s a five story jump.”
“Maybe there’s another way,” Akali said, “Just because it’s pointing that way doesn’t mean we have to go that way. The needle takes you in the direction as the crow flies.”
Merida stared out the window, lost in thought. The Mayoral palace was one of the tallest buildings on this side of town. They were almost on level with some of the roofs of the neighboring buildings. Not to mention, Jelly World wasn’t exactly up to code when it came to fire escapes. If they were to jump, they would fall right onto the street with a few broken bones.
“We need to get out of this room,” Akali concluded, “anyone got any ideas?” Merida raised her hand.
A guard stood outside of their door to prevent them from leaving or breaking out. Merida knocked twice on the door to get his attention.
“What do you want?” he demanded. Merida used her sweetest, highest voice.
“I was wondering if I could leave, sir,” she asked.
The guard laughed. “Leave? You just thought if you asked nicely, the mayor would let you go? I don’t think so.”
Merida tried again. “But sir, I really need to go to the bathroom,” the guard didn’t say anything, so she kept trying. “It’s an emergency. Gelatin goes right through me.”
The guard simmered. He wasn’t getting paid to escort young girls to the bathroom. But it was just one small thing. And it would really stink to be both imprisoned and in need of a bathroom.
“Alright, fine, but make it quick,” he opened the door a crack to let Merida out.
“Thanks, mister,” she said, but when the guard tried to shut the door, Akali’s foot was in the way.
“What in the name of--” he muttered, trying to shut the door. Merida jumped on his back, knocking him backwards and onto the floor, and Akali jumped out of the door. “Come on, everyone! Coast is clear!”
Chosek and his team poured out of the room, and together the whole team ran towards the end of the hallway. The staircase was waiting for them there. “Stop! Guards!” The fallen guard yelled, but they were too fast for him. Chosek got to the staircase first and started to descend, but Merida stopped him.
“What are you doing?” she asked.
“Getting out of this awful place. The exit’s downstairs, come on,” he explained. She pulled him back sharply.
“There are too many guards on the first floor. We’ll never get out,” she said, “we have to go up!”
“Up?” The Mayoral palace had six floors, but they were on the fifth. Merida started scampering up the stairs, and everyone had no choice but to follow her. Luckily, this particular staircase led all the way up to the roof, where a rooftop garden was growing. There were no guards up here. Merida ran all the way past the plants to the edge of the building. This was one of the highest points in town, the Mayor's palace dwarfing the buildings around it.
“Now, we jump!” Merida yelled to them.
Akali pulled her to the side. “Are you insane, Merida? Why would we jump?”
“The buildings are made out of jelly. Jelly bounces. It will cushion our fall,” she explained. Akali hesitated. “Do you trust me or not?”
“Alright, fine,” he let her go, “It’s your funeral.”
Merida took a deep breath, and then got a running start along the roof. When at last she reached the edge, she jumped off, flying through the air towards the glossy, orange building beside them. She tumbled and fell, but when she made contact with the roof of that building, it bent and stretched around her like a trampoline. Before she knew it, she was in the air again, jumping up higher across the roof. She bounced to a stop on the lower building, completely unhurt. She stood up to wave over the rest of the team.
Chosek hesitated, and then jumped next. He soon came to a bounce next to his sister, followed by his teammates. Akali went last, as the guards appeared on the Mayoral palace roof. They yelled “stop!” but it was already too late; the Lupe was falling through the air towards the building. He bounced, and everyone caught him. The mayoral guards stood at the top of the building, dumbfounded at their escape. Merida made sure to stick her tongue out at them before she joined the rest of the team running down the stairs.
They popped out of the bottom floor onto the street before Akali stopped her. “Merida! Where do we go now?”
She looked at the Astroblade, whose needle was pointing directly through the center of town. “This way!” she waved everyone on, running while staring at the needle. She almost tripped a few times, but kept pressing onward. The townspeople were starting to get their act together. Having been informed by the mayor of the visitors’ traitorous escape plans, they came out of their houses, roaring in indignation. The first to capture them would win an impressive bounty, for sure.
They cut clear through the center of town, splashing through a jelly fountain and cutting across a plaza. The needle seemed to be pointing towards a wall off in the distance, and once Merida got closer, she realized there was a small crevice in that wall. She knew that was it; their one way out. Maybe not big enough for Akali, but she could fit in just fine. She raced ahead of the group and jumped into the crack, squeezing through just barely. Then she scratched at the rocks on either side of the hole to make it wider. By the time her brother arrived, it was wide enough for them to fit. Chosek gave everyone a boost up while Merida pulled them through. It was only a matter of time before the mob caught up with them, though. This crevice led to a tunnel, and the needle pointed straight down the throat of it. She knew they were almost there, almost safe. The townspeople wouldn’t dare leave the city limits, would they?
Chosek was the last one in and she gave him a boost. Then, she tried pushing some of the extra rock debris into the crevice to slow them down. It wasn’t enough to completely block it off, but maybe it would give them more of a head start.
The rest of the group went ahead, but when Akali realized that Merida was behind, he stopped and helped her. Together they scooped rocks and gravel into the hole, trying to pack it tight.
“It’s no use,” she sighed, “this won’t hold them off!”
“Then keep running,” Akali nudged her forward, deeper into the tunnel, “I’ll hold them off.”
“We can’t leave you behind,” She tried to pull him, but he wouldn’t budge, “Do you want to stay trapped underground forever?”
“That’s just it. I think I’m going to stay,” he explained, his ears low, “This place… It’s the only place where people don’t think of me as a scam. I’m not a gambler or a liar to them. I could have a fresh start here.”
“But you’re not like them,” she stuttered, “How will you--”
“I’m not like anyone up there, either. There’s no one place I call home. I’m better off here than being hunted by the Tikaty pirates, or the Royal Poker League of Meridell. Trust me,” he assured her, “I’ll be fine.”
It was clear he already made up his mind. “Well, then I guess you’ll want this back. After all, I was just borrowing it,” she pulled out the compass and pushed it into his hands, but he refused it too. What happened to the selfish trickster she met in Terror Mountain? He smiled benignly at her.
“Keep it. It was pointing at you. I guess that was the compass’ way of telling me it was time to pass it on. This was my last adventure,” he said. The rock around the crevice trembled as the townspeople tore at it. Akali’s tail lashed, “I’ll hold them off. You go bring your brother back home safe.”
“I promise,” she said. She threw her arms around his neck, hugging him goodbye. She could hear the calls and jeers of the townspeople coming through the cavern. Akali nudged her away.
“Now go!” he said, and turned around to run back through the cavern, towards the townspeople. Merida wiped a tear from her eye and ran like her life depended on it, scrabbling up the rock ledge to the exit.
Chosek and his crew was waiting for her at a bend in the tunnel. His team found a large, heavy boulder, and were ready to roll it in front of the path once everyone was through. Merida squeezed her way in with the help of a paw up.
“Is your friend behind you? The white Lupe?” Chosek asked, but Merida shook her head. She hoped it was too dim for him to see the tears on her cheeks.
“Akali… said he wanted to stay behind,” she explained, in between sniffles, “he didn’t want to leave.”
“Well, that’s fine by me. I didn’t want him thinking he could take credit for this find, anyway. Tarel, get the rock,” the team pushed the boulder with great effort until it eclipsed the crevice. There was no way anyone could get through now. They were safe. The cavern they were in was dark and damp, and something was dripping off to their left into a small pool.
“I don’t think we should tell anyone about Jelly World,” Merida mumbled.
Chosek laughed, “And why not, little sister? This is the greatest find in centuries! Better than Moltara, better than Altador! No one believed me when I said I could do it. No such place exists, Chosek. You’re deluding yourself. Just wait until--”
“But you heard what the Mayor said. If you told everyone how to go there, then the whole city would be ruined. They may have food and peace, but that’s because they’re separate from the rest of Neopia. If you let just anyone in, they’ll destroy it.” And then Akali wouldn’t be safe anywhere.
“I’m not arguing with you about this right now. Let’s get going and talk about this later,” Chosek warned her, and they all started up the path to the surface. His team filed in behind him, leaving Merida to take up the caboose.
The climb was long and difficult. Without torches, they only had the dim light coming through the ceiling to rely on for illumination. The path was narrow and rocky, and sloped upward at a constant rate. Merida couldn’t believe how deep they were. It certainly explained why they had to take an elevator down to city level. As she hiked, she wondered about Akali and the city. Would he be okay? Was he really happy down there? She would never know. They blocked off the one way out of town, so if he ever changed his mind, he was out of luck. The thought of it made her heart sink. The astroblade weighed heavy in her pocket.
After a few hours, the air finally started to smell sweet again. It felt like it was moving around in the cavern. At last, the cave opened up to a small clearing in the forest. Merida took a few more steps forward and realized that she wasn’t walking on the rocky path of the tunnel at all. The ground beneath her was sand. She was standing on the beach of Mystery Island. When she looked up, thousands upon millions of stars twinkled and winked at her. She had never seen so many stars in her whole life. Exhausted from the trip, she curled up right then and there and fell asleep.
It wasn’t until the morning sunshine was bright and hot against her fur that Merida woke up again. Everyone else had fallen asleep on the beach just like her and were starting to stir. Merida waited for the rest of them along the surf, enjoying the cool water rushing in and out underneath her paws. The ocean here stretched on forever. Soon she would be on a boat again, bound northward for Terror Mountain. Back to the world of cold and ice.
Once everyone was awake and ready to go, they hiked back to the Inn and Restaurant where Chosek’s team had been staying. In the morning time, there were a lot fewer customers, and the place felt smaller without all of the bustling colors and sights. Calandra the Kougra, the proprietor of the establishment, stood at the counter. She wiped it down with a cloth. When the weary travelers entered, she smiled at them.
“Long night you must have had. Any chance you found what you were looking for?” she asked, with a flick of her tail. Chosek opened his mouth, and Merida lowered her head. There was no way her brother was going to deny their discovery; he was too proud.
“Actually, yes, we did,” he said, and pulled the key they found in the tomb out from his pocket. He placed it on the counter. “The Key. Here it is.”
Calandra picked it up and examined it with a close eye. “Very peculiar. And this was just out in the woods?”
“In an old tomb,” Chosek continued. But then winked at Merida. “Too bad we never found what it opened.”
Calandra pouted and put the key back on the table so Chosek could have it back. “That’s a real shame. Are you going to keep looking?”
“We’re heading out on today’s ship. I don’t think we’ll have the chance to come back, unfortunately. Maybe some mysteries are meant to remain mysteries,” he slipped the key back into his pocket, right over his heart. “Thanks for all of your hospitality, though. We’ll be checking out in a few hours, once everything is packed.”
She smiled at him, but her eyes flashed. She knew Chosek was keeping a secret from her, but she wasn’t going to push it. After all, some mysteries were meant to remain mysteries. “Have a safe trip back.”
The ship Chosek and his crew hired to take them back was smaller than the one Merida worked on, but she was grateful to be a passenger rather than a stowaway. They packed up their things and boarded the ship around noon. The horn sounded, and before Merida knew it, Mystery Island was drifting away into the horizon. Her brother joined her alongside the railing to watch it disappear from sight.
“I’ll be sorry to see it go,” he said, “it was so warm there. Terror Mountain is just not going to be the same.”
“I know what you mean,” Merida sighed, “But how different is living in a cave made out of snow from a cave made out of jelly?” her brother laughed. But then, she asked him a question that had been bothering her since that morning. “Chosek… why didn’t you tell Calandra about Jelly World?”
He shrugged. “You were right. It was the find of a lifetime, but the people who would want to go there would only cause it harm. I didn’t want to hurt them. Besides, if I told everyone I discovered an underground world completely made out of jelly, who would believe me?”
“You’re right,” she laughed, “it sounds absolutely insane.”
“But I don’t know what I’ll tell people back home when they ask about my adventure. They’ll be disappointed when they find out I came all that way for nothing,” he leaned up against the rail. But then, Merida had an idea.
“You know, we don’t need to go back to Terror Mountain,” she said.
Chosek straightened up. “What are you talking about?”
“We could go on another adventure. Right now. See where the wind takes us,” she jumped up and started to fumble with the pocket of her shirt.
“But Merida, where would we go?” Chosek asked. She pulled out the astroblade and opened the cover. The needle spun, and spun, and spun, until at last, it pointed off somewhere to the northeast, over the vast stretch of open ocean. She smiled mischievously at him.
“How about that way?” p>The End.