A Story Well-Travelled

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Chapter 22: Adelyn

We’re so close to the Council house I can feel the rage coming onto me. It doesn’t help that the air is electrified by every bolt of lightning, though that’s probably just my imagination making the voltage seem to run through my veins.

Resdon is empty tonight. Despite the lack of people, it doesn’t feel like a sleepy town. It feels like a ghost town with the shadows of every person who should be here just hiding around the corner. Even though we’re alone on the sidewalks, I feel as though the other Resdon residents are still taking up space, at least in my mind. Some things don’t change.

And then the Council house comes into view. It’s towering and over-compensative, if you ask me. It looks gray in the night, but every once in a while, the lightning strikes and turns it a magnificent yellow for a millisecond. I live for the strikes because they energize me. They remind me that the situation is dire and we need to get going.

“So, what do we do?” Wesley asks beside me. We’re far enough away, hidden up close to a neighboring fence on the sidewalk, that the guards outside the Council house gate can’t see us. I can just barely see their dark figures if I squint my eyes, and I’m willing to bet they aren’t expecting a break-in tonight. They won’t be looking for us.

Still, the entrance to the tunnels is right near the front gate. There’s no possible way for us to enter the tunnels and not get the guards’ attention. I throw around a multitude of ideas in my brain, waiting for one to catch on, but the only one that does is dangerous and risky. I glance at Wesley beside me and wonder just how willing he would be to go along with it. But would I risk his life like that?

On the other hand, haven’t I risked his life already?

“The only way this will be possible,” Wesley begins. “Is if one of us distracts the guards, maybe even have them chase us, and the other person slip into the tunnel entrance.”

He voices my exact plan aloud. I almost tell him that great minds think alike, but Wesley has always hated that expression. He says that if all great minds thought alike, then we’d only have a limited amount of progress and improvements, and I can’t exactly argue with that.

But I don’t know what else to say. I can’t volunteer him for the position of distracting the guards—that’s assumptive and rude—but I’m sure as heck not volunteering myself. I need to make sure Aspen gets out of here tonight, and as much as I love Wesley, I can only trust myself.

The silence drags on for an uncomfortably long moment. Wesley stands with his arms crossed and his neck bent up to look to the heavens. Big, dark clouds have moved in on the sky. They creep up on us with all the stealth of an elephant, as in to say not at all.

“So I’m assuming your silence means that you want me to distract the guards?” Wesley finally asks.

“It’s dangerous.” I say. “I mean, what if they shoot you? What if they don’t chase you like we’re anticipating?”

“And what if we got all the way here and can’t even get inside the building?” Wesley argues. “Because that’s the situation we’re looking at right now.” He’s right and I know it, but I just can’t fathom leaving Wesley to the wolves. It was the idea originally running through my head, but I never wanted to go through with it.

Something in my pained expression makes Wesley soften. He uncrosses his arms, gripping my shoulders in a loose but steady way and meeting my eyes. “Adelyn, they won’t shoot me if they can’t see me.” He says softly. I watch his eyes to scan them for a lie but come up with warm affection instead of skepticism. “I’ll just be leaves rustling in the woods in front of the gate. Enough so that they know that I’m human but not enough that they can pinpoint my exact location.”

“Yeah?” I ask him, still mildly unsure despite his reassurances.

Wesley nods his head and pulls me into a hug. It doesn’t feel like a goodbye, surprisingly. It feels like a do-over of the less-than-welcoming reunion we had in another dimension as I brought him a letter addressed to myself. Besides, that was Lee, another boy from another place. This is my Wesley, the one that took the blame for anything with Miss Calliope in the group home, even if it was all my fault. The one that once told me I looked like a fish, not because I was slimy and weird-looking but because I was exotic and unique—Wesley’s compliments used to be notoriously strange.

“Go save our friends.” Wesley whispers into my hair. The intimacy is a palpable thing. I don’t want to pull away. “We’ll meet back at the crossroads.”

When we break apart, there are tears in my eyes. I won’t mistake love for weakness, but I will mistake my worry for a handicap. When I’m inside the Council house, I’ll need to stay focused and determined. I can’t constantly think about whether or not Wesley gets away unscathed.

I know what crossroads he wants to meet at. It’s the intersection in the woods, the bicycle spoked pathway: the right will take you to the chasm and the left will take you to the lake.

It’s time to make our move. Wesley and I both know it. All the necessary words have been said and all the encouragement we could muster was passed on in the form of a hug. So it’s time to go, but I look at Wesley one last time.

There’s an old saying in Resdon that if you really care for a friend, you can pick them out easily even on the most crowded streets of town. I think I could pick Wesley out on the streets—not because of brown mess of hair or his chiseled features, but because of the love he radiates and the memories we share. They call to me like the long-lost friend he is.

Wesley, Aspen, Grayson, and I have always been four stars in our own little galaxy. We revolved around nothing but our own perpetual boredom and gimmicks, but it was enough to make me happy. I want to go back to that swing set one last time and swing high in the sunny blue sky. I want to see Wesley doing pushups in the overgrown grass and I want to see Grayson scribbling in his journal. I want to see Aspen’s crazy hair and perpetual lip-tilt.

But first, I have to free them. And Wesley has to risk his life to get me inside. We finally take a silent cue from the wind and just start walking. Wesley breaks off and walks towards the woods without me. I remember his hand in mine earlier in the day and the way it made me feel like I wasn’t alone. Well, I’m alone now.

I can’t hear the rustling in the tree line that must be Wesley—but the guards do. I watch them the moment their postures stiffen even more than they already had been and their necks jerk to face the trees. They’re directly in front of me where I stand on the road, but they’re heads face towards the left.

While they’re occupied, I sneak forward slowly and carefully towards the end of the sidewalk. It will cut off abruptly in only a few steps and become the same concrete shared with the front gate. Then there’s the plot of dirt that holds the bushes—my eyes already connect with the fifth one on the right of the gate. In a few moments, I’ll have to run. Slide over the bush and open up the hatch that leads to the tunnels.

My heart is pounding, sounding even louder in my own head than the incessant thunder. Now, I’m close enough to hear the shuffling of feet in the forest. The guards are on high alert. Two of them are out here tonight, one tall and skinny and one short and fat. To me, one of them looks like a stick and the other looks like a pumpkin, but what do I know?

“Who is there?” One of the guards shouts. It’s the fat one, and his voice is surprisingly squeaky. There’s more rustling and both the guards hold tightly to their guns. “Come out where we can see you!”

I’m counting on these guards having inadequate training. Most of the guards for the Council house do, considering the crime rate is so low in Resdon. Besides, even if anybody got through these gates and into the Council house, they’d likely get lost and run into another guard long before they ran into a Council member. You have to know precisely where you’re going or face getting lost in that place.

“Last warning or we’re coming in to find you!” The tall guard shouts. They haven’t exactly warned him of anything yet, which is enough confirmation I need to know these guards are terribly lacking in any of the necessary skills to protect our governing body. Now that I’m closer and can see them better through the dark night, even their grips on their guns look nervous instead of confident. Anyone can hold a gun, but few can shoot it accurately.

I hear the rustling pick up in a way that sounds like Wesley is running away. The guards—idiots, the two of them—take off after him. I run across the concrete. My hands connect with the bush and I shove the fake plant aside. Underneath it, there’s a small metal door with an easy-to-lift handle.

When I look over my shoulder, the guards have disappeared into the forest. I slip inside the door and am careful to pull the bush back over the door before I close it.

A loud clang of the metal tells me that the door is closed and I’m officially in the Council house. Well, I’m officially in the escape tunnels of the Council house. But considering that is precisely where I wanted to be, I’m happy with it.

From where I stand, I’m on the top of a metal staircase looking down at the wide tunnels lit with fluorescent lights. My eyes burn at the insulting excuse for light after I’ve spent so long in the dark, but I force myself down the stairs anyways with quiet steps.

I remind myself to breathe once I’m left with the sensation of being out of air. This is terrifying, sure, but I need to be confident with my movements now while I’m still relatively safe. There is no time for held breath or other screwups.

The halls are empty. I run my hand along the cold walls just to have something to do as I walk, to have something to feel other than scared. I try to map out where I’m at in my head. These tunnels are familiar to me, but everything is different when there is risk involved. Pressure. Some cave under it, but others excel. I’m determined to be in the latter group.

I can get to the prison cells from here; I have to. I’ll take the next right, then the left after that. Then a long hallway and another left.

I follow my own instructions like the subordinate little intruder that I am. One light flickers above me, stopping my heart momentarily, but I keep walking and search the area for any threats. Resdon is a small-ish town, I suppose. There’s a lot of people, but the population of people willing to be guards is typically slim. It’s a profession looked down upon by my gaudy and materialistic fellow citizens. Being a guard pays next to nothing; you can’t afford to look fabulous when you can’t afford adequate housing. It’s one step on the totem pole above the factory workers out by the wastelands, but we’re all the same, deep down. We all come home to Resdon at night to rest our heads and drift into pleasant dreams.

Still, I feel like there should be some guards down here. I’m alone the entire time, never seeing another living soul. I don’t even hear another living soul until I finally reach the intersection of the prison hallway.

I lean against the wall to my right and strain my ears to hear the hushed conversation. It feels like an intrusion of its own, but only because I recognize the voices.

“She’s coming to get us out of here.” Aspen’s voice says. She sounds like the confident, self-assured friend I’ve always loved and sometimes felt jealous of.

“Penni, she’s in another dimension.” Grayson’s voice says. I want to run out and find them, but something stops me in my place. Maybe it’s because I’m positive that they’re talking about me, but maybe it’s because Grayson actually sounds earnest and genuine. He’s never sounded genuine talking to Aspen. If I walked in now, I’d be interrupting something. Besides, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t curious.

“Aspen?” Grayson asks, his voice contemplative. “Why have you always hated me?”

Aspen’s wary voice comes a moment later. “I don’t know. I just…I guess I was sometimes kind of jealous of you.”

“Jealous of me?” Grayson is incredulous, which is warranted. My own thought process is halted at this startling confession. Aspen’s only been jealous of one person ever, as far as I was aware. That person was Ms. Landon, our second grade teacher who had two boyfriends at the same time who she scheduled to bring her lunch at the school on alternating days so they never found out about each other.

Sheepishly, Aspen says, “Yeah, I guess. I was always jealous of you and Addy together. Your beautiful minds always made these beautiful stories that I always missed out on.” I want to run up and hug her, but this conversation is just for them. Still, I’m not honorable enough to walk away.

“But I was always jealous of you.” Grayson admits. “All of you, really. But you in particular.” I can hear him sigh. “I mean, you’re so personable. Everyone loves you, but I guess we all have our strengths.”

“Okay, first of all, nobody on the planet says ‘personable.’” Aspen says with a scoff, obviously past her temporary state of kindness. “Also, what strength is it that you have? Seems to be you have less muscle than a shrimp.”

“Oh, yeah?” Grayson counters, equally mad. “Your hair looks like everyone was so fed up with you in a paintball fight they all just decided to aim at your head.”

“Hey!” Aspen says. “What the heck, Gray? Tear down my self-esteem, why don’t you?”

The logical part of me is saying that Aspen started it, but I know her well enough to know that was her way of deflecting to a less sensitive topic. It’s what she does when she’s trying to push people away—bring out the claws and get to swinging.

From the hallway, I can hear their bickering start to gain momentum. They have to be in separate cells, willing but unable to kill each other. I take it as my cue to walk in and be the mediator, as I always am.

“Guys!” I shout down the hall. Their bickering immediately cuts off, and Aspen’s fragile, shaking voice calls out, “Adelyn?”

“Yes, it’s me.” I say, walking towards her voice. She’s to the right, down the hallway about ten feet. When I walk into view, we both try to run up and hug each other through the bars. It’s an impossible task, but one neither of us are willing to skip out on.

“Oh, my gosh! AdelynImissedyousomuchanddonoteverleavemeagainorIwill—”

“Aspen—” I pull back and laugh. “I did not understand a word you just said.”

“That’s because she said it all as one word.” Grayson cuts in. I whip around and see he’s in the cell directly across from Aspen. Whoever chose these cells must’ve wanted to break up a fight. “But in Aspen-ese, I think she said she missed you.”

“Like you know Aspen-ese.” Aspen snaps. “We’re exclusive. Make your own language.”

Grayson rolls his eyes and I turn around to face my best friend. “Well, in Aspen-ese and all the other languages,” I start. “I missed you too.”

Aspen tears up and Grayson makes a sound behind me that sounds conspicuously like a snort. Aspen and I hug again through the bars for a long moment. The metal digs into the inside of my arm, but her warm embrace feels like home. I finally pull away, and now we’re both tearing up.

“Okay, let’s get you guys out of here.” I say, turning to look at Grayson. He’ll be much more beneficial in this conversation. “How do I go about that?”

Grayson stands up from the floor of his cell. His boyish brown curls stick up in the back and his freckled face is stretched in a grimace. “You’ll have to find Soren. She’ll probably have the keys.”

“Soren?” I ask, My eyes must pop out of my head. “She’s a member of the Council. Otherwise known as the ones that locked you up in the first place.

Grayson shakes his head. “She was trying to help us escape the first time.”

“Grand job she did of it.” Aspen mutters behind me.

I ignore her and focus on Grayson. “But if I find her, won’t she be with the other Council members?”

“I…” Grayson looks around uncertainly, leaning up on the bars of his cell and peering down the hallway. “I think they left.”

“Left?” I ask.

Grayson nods. “All the guards are gone down here? Did you notice that? They wouldn’t have left if the Council was still here.”

“The why wouldn’t Soren leave with them?”

“Because she’s guilty.” Grayson says. “She thinks she deserves to die. Find her, and she’ll probably give you the keys. Otherwise we’re stuck here and you came all this way for nothing.”

Grayson is right: all the guards are gone. Walking through the empty Council house is eerie. It has the feel of a place long abandoned by society even if there isn’t a speck of dust on the chandeliers or the semblance of dirt on the dark wood floors. The lights are low and I hug the crimson walls of the main floor of the house as I tip-toe along.

Instinct tells me I’m all alone in this place, but logic still tells me to stay sharp and alert. My eyes dart down every hallway or intersection I pass, inspecting for threats before I continue on my way.

When I pass the large, intricate painting of the five Council members together, I know I’m getting close to my final destination. The painting is the size of a dining table. The background is a deep black that gives way to the lightened figures I used to look up to. Sullivan looks strong and authoritative in the middle, his bald head reflecting the light. My eyes flick over the others before landing on Soren, the member I hope to find in this journey. Even in the painting, she looks hesitant. Her silver hairs hangs loose around her shoulders and a small smile plays on her lips, but even the most oblivious observers could see the uncertainty in it. Her hands are clasped tightly in her navy-clad lap. Each of the members in the painting wears the same deep blue.

I pass the painting, holding my breath as I do so, and come right up to the meeting room doors. They’re big and oak with the carving of a bird on each. The bird is midflight and seeming to fly higher and higher. I’ve seen this bird carving a hundred times before, yet I’m still not sure of the type of bird it is. Maybe some questions are better left alone.

The metal door handle is cold on my hands. I shove the door open and walk across the threshold.

For the first time that I’m aware of, the blackout curtains on the windows are open. It’s the first thing I notice, and while it’s not letting any light into the room, it does show me the ominous storm raging outside. The thunder is just background music to me now, playing the rhythm of holy anger.

Soren sits at the end of the meeting table. She stares into space with an apathetic expression that reminds me at once of Ezra, the “mother” that I’ll probably never see again. I wonder if she’s worried about me in my absence.

Only two of the four lamps in the room are lit, leaving the space shrouded in peculiar shadows. Only half of Soren’s body is illuminated, cut with a diagonal line across her torso that’s all too precise.

She turns to look at me when the door closes behind me, her expression changing. Now, she wears a face of confusion, stress and uncertainty making her scarce wrinkles more pronounced. “What are you doing here?” Soren asks. “I thought you were gone. In another dimension.”

“Where are the cell keys?” I ask in lieu of an answer. “I need to get Grayson and Aspen out.”

Soren looks at me for a long moment. “Don’t let them out.” She finally says.

“I thought you were on their side!” I protest. “Grayson said you tried to help them escape—”

“It’s too late now.” Soren says. “There would hardly be enough time for you all to leave.”

“What are you talking about?”

The lightning strikes outside and I flinch involuntarily. Outside the window, I can see the jagged streak across the sky. It’s raining buckets now, and I hope Wesley is safe and sound in the forest. Surprisingly, I haven’t thought about him at all since entering the tunnels, but now he returns to the forefront of my mind. There’s a Wesley-shaped gorge where my focus should be.

I ask the question that’s been in my mind since my conversation with Grayson in the prisons. “If you’re here alone, where are the other Council members? And why didn’t you already let Grayson and Aspen go?”

Soren sighs long and hard. Her hands fumble under the table, but I can only see the outline of them in her shadowed lower body. “The other Council members have abandoned ship.” She says. “They’re leaving the dimension tonight. Now, probably.”

“Why?”

“Because the dimension is collapsing.” Soren says. “We’re out of magic.”

Even though Soren has explained this to me twice, I still can’t wrap my head around the implications. “The Council has had to use more and more magic to stay young over the years.” She says. “And we’re using it for other stuff—” My mind immediately pictures the multitude of orbs suspended in the city streets as our beloved light source. “But there’s only a finite amount of magic in each dimension. And you can’t have a dimension without magic. Without it, there’s no miracles. There’s no love. There’s no life.”

“But why didn’t the Council warn people before now?” My voice is quiet and hurt. I’ve known the Council members for my entire life, and while I’ve experienced some of their flaws firsthand, I would never imagine them abandoning their entire dimension and leaving them reduced to a memory. The sense of betrayal is a sharp knife wound in my side.

“We all lived in denial.” Soren says with a shake of her head. “None of us wanted to believe our way of life could be compromised. We had it all: eternal youth, loads of power, the perfect dwelling.” She gestures to the room all around her with an outstretched hand. “So when the effects of aging started to find us sooner and sooner after our magic treatments, we just started using more.

“And there is some magic left in this world. You’re proof enough of that.” Her eyes flick over me. “But it’s not enough to sustain the dimension.” The lightning strikes outside and Soren glares out the window at it. “The storms are only the beginning. But sometime tonight the dimension will just fall apart.”

“And what will happen to us?” I ask, though I’m positive I don’t want to know the answer.

Soren shrugs. “I’m not sure. We can’t exactly ask anybody from a dimension this has happened to.” She lets it hang in the air the fact that we can’t ask those people because they all cease to exist.

Soren and I are silent for a moment. I, for one, am contemplating my shallow existence and what seems to be the end of it, but Soren looks at peace. The ends of her lips tilt up in what almost looks like a smile, but to me it seems like more of a not-quite-frown. Her head tilts to the side as she watches the battle raging on outside, the fury of the sky versus the crippling town of Resdon.

Our conversation seems to be nearing an end. I can feel the air waiting to entomb our last words and hold them forever, but I want to push off this inevitable moment for a while longer. “Why didn’t you go with the Council?” I ask.

Soren lets out a humorless laugh; she still looks out the window but answers me nonetheless. I watch her hunched back as she replies. “For one, they probably wouldn’t have let me considering I tried to help three prisoners escape.”

“And…”

“And a captain must go down with her sinking ship.” Soren’s tone is bitter. “This is all my fault. I’m on the Council, so I could’ve maybe prevented this, but it’s too late now. I feel like someone has to be punished for what is about to happen.” She swallows hard and her next words are whispered. “It might as well be me.”

I want to agree with her. Heck, I want to punish her myself, but there’s no time for her self-deprecating thoughts. If I have any chance of getting out of here, I need her help. But at the same time, I can’t just leave the people of Resdon behind.

I swallow my pride and my self-doubt to ask my next question. “Do you believe in redemption?”

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