On Mountain High – Chapter Eighteen

The Order of the Departed Daily Gazette
Two Weeks Earlier

City authorities seek any information leading to the arrest of members of the infamous Havok terrorist group. The organization is charged with countless crimes against The Order of the Departed, including both peaceful and violent crimes which now include the bombing of The Order’s secondary branch located inside the Pearl.

The Pearl, local hub of government, commerce, business and more, was attacked sometime early this morning between the hours of midnight and 2 a.m.. The bomb that Havok deployed affected only The Order’s prayer center in the Pearl, residents who lived in the city housing above were not hurt.

Witnesses report hearing “ear-piercing shrieks” and “a thunderous boom,” waking from their beds sometime during the night. Any person(s) with relevant information are encouraged to come forward so that justice may be served.

 

 

Chapter 18 – Kalliope

David always says that a good story should make everyone who reads it just a little bit uncomfortable. At the paper we cover crime in the city, which happens so rarely that our stories produce a seeming chain reaction of extra good deeds. People picking up stray garbage, giving a portion of their weekly food allowance to a neighbor in need, that kind of thing. That makes no one uncomfortable. We cover mandatory ceremonies at the Temple, and everyone who feigned illness or made up their respective excuses feels guilty, and in turn their attendance spikes – for the glory of the gods, the Overseer says. That makes only cynical David uncomfortable. Occasionally we cover stories of strange bodies and human remains inexplicably found in the Whispering Mountains. They’re linked to the Hunt. That makes more people uncomfortable.

Now we’re covering the Hunt from the inside and I’m the one who’s uncomfortable.

No, I’m not uncomfortable.

I’m afraid.

Two Seekers in my group now have encountered these…people. Should I call in my rapid escape plan and have David rescue me from all the way out here? Or do I continue on, for the sake of the story? I was so sure I could handle this, without David’s reinforcements, without his secret weapons stash, without his security team interrupting my every thought via some microscopic communication device. Gods, I was so foolish.

How easy it is to be brave in the fiery furnace before the flames ignite. But am I brave enough to withstand the scorching blaze?

I squeeze my eyes closed tightly to force the voices from my head. So many words, thoughts, ideas swirling that I can’t grab hold of a single one. This will not do, I must remain calm and level-headed if I am to remain.

But am I to remain?

It is a quiet morning at the Checkpoint. No one seems to be in a hurry to venture outside the safety of its doors. We linger in bed – all awake, no one talking. We all take long showers, letting the warm water splash over us for far longer than normal. We spend an hour eating a breakfast of lukewarm oatmeal and flavorless toast provided by The Order. Today the usually delicious cuisine holds no pleasure for our senses. We eat in silence.

The bags under Ronan’s eyes are as purple as the faraway mountains in the distance. I can understand why he might not have slept well. My feelings are all jumbled now, there’s the initial hatred I felt toward him because of his rude remarks and selfishness, but now there’s also…sympathy.  I do not want to feel sympathy for Ronan.

Iona looks a little worse for the wear, too, I notice. I wonder if Ronan’s sighting yesterday brought the memories of her own encounter back up to the emotional surface. I want to hug her, tell her it’s okay, she’s with the group and we’re safe…for now. But since our conversation at the lake yesterday, our friendship feels different. Strained, when before it was easygoing. Tense, when before it was effortless.

I hope she believed me that I’m not working against the group as a spy. Because I’m not. Not technically, at least. I’m a reporter, and I’m simply doing my job. That’s all. She knew I worked for the paper when we met, I told her that I did. I gave her nothing but honesty. Almost. Gods I hope she kept her promise not to tell anyone what she learned.

We set out, leaving the compound. “Goodbye and may the gods grant you fortune, Seekers,” Anna calls from behind us. I flash Iona a friendly smile. She smiles tersely back.

Definitely not the same.

This story better be worth it, she was the first real friend I’ve made in years.

“It’s hard to be friends with someone who has more than you,” my father used to tell me when I was upset because the girls in my grade ignored me at school and barely said hello to me when we crossed paths at the Pearl. The fact that my family has money wasn’t my fault. Envy, I learned. Of course none of it was mine, so I couldn’t even give it away to try to get them to be my friends. They simply were not interested, based solely on the fact that my family had more than theirs did. “The burden of the blessed,” my father called it with a strange gleam in his eye.

I learned to keep to myself.

 

***

 

After Anna closes the Checkpoint door behind us, we part ways with the other two Seekers. We don’t know where they’re going, and they don’t know where we’re going. Don’t ask, don’t tell. I wish them well, but I do not wish them victory. That being said I do hope that they don’t encounter whatever – whoever – is in the forest again. I hope we don’t, either.

We look quite the underdogs as we depart from the Checkpoint, all shuffling feet and hunched backs. Ragtag, my father would say. It’s an old term, one far out of fashion these days. But right now no other word seems more appropriate. A cloud of intangible anxiety looms silently overhead, though none of us admit such out loud.

I remember how, as we make our way out of the Checkpoint, the faces of the fallen stared down at me more ominously than ever. How my eyes glazed over the faces of Seekers past until they landed on one single face. Young, like the others. But this face was pale, like mine, framed by blonde hair like mine and innocent. Like mine. A chill had run down my spine, tiny pinpricks reminding me of the all-too-present danger of the Hunt.

I wonder whether she disappeared or died. Whether her body was ever found, or given a proper burial with blessings from the High Overseer. Not that it matters. I wonder what secrets her eyes took in before…whatever happened to her happened.

My thoughts are interrupted by a crashing boom of thunder, rippling its way over the mountains. Startled, I jump involuntarily. A storm is coming.

Matteo’s gaze meets mine. We take a slow, heavy breath in unison – an unspoken mark of camaraderie – and keep moving.

We’ve set off toward the Dead River, another one of the places widely believed to be the location of the gods’ legendary hidden treasure. Legend holds that the river – now a vastly flowing body of water as treacherous as it is beautiful – was once dry, its bed turned to dust, hence its name. I’ve seen the old stories in the newspaper archives. Read the interviews.

Jagger wanted to go back to the area near the Consecrated Dwelling where Ronan found the coin yesterday, and I agreed that seemed the most logical course of action. But the mere idea set Ronan off in a frenzied hysteria all over again. So, to placate him, we agreed to search elsewhere for the day, and return perhaps tomorrow to the place where he encountered the mysterious forest people. And tomorrow if he doesn’t want to come, he can stay behind.

Something cold and damp hits my freckled arm. Then my shoulder. My nose.

Rain.

Ominous, I think wryly.

Jagger’s voice cuts through the downpour from his position ahead. “Everyone be careful, the rain is going to make the trail slippery and unstable.”

I steal a glance at Ronan, who looks still shell-shocked and plenty unstable without any help from the rain.

Progress is slow on the slick terrain. I slip once, scraping an elbow and a palm. Matteo helps me up, pours clean water from his bottle over my shallow wounds and we go on. Ronan falls once as well, and I think I spot tears in his eyes when Jagger pulls him back to standing.

I am suddenly overcome by a menacing premonition that he’s not going to make it.

We walk for what feels like eternity before finally I hear the roaring sound of millions of gallons of rushing water. As we grow closer, the Dead River comes into view below. I ignore the pain of pine needles scraping my skin as I push my way toward the cliff’s edge, focusing my eyes on the sight before me.

The river isn’t dead at all. Far from it. Undead and cursed, if anything, but alive with a dark energy. Water thunders down from a source so high I can’t see, with cruel, jagged rocks protruding spitefully skyward, disrupting the water’s pulsing flow. Heavy raindrops splash hard into the water, giving the river’s surface a frothy and wild, rabid appearance as it snakes its way through the endless twists and rapids. At the opposite end, there looks to be a waterfall. Probably quite a beautiful picture to see from below, but from my vantage point the sight sends a shiver down my spine.

Iona glances furtively all around us. She is always on guard now. We all are.

“Okay,” I shout over the noise of the river, “if this is where the treasure is, there have got to be clues around. Let’s start looking.”

We peel away from the safety of the group one by one, searching everywhere. We dig into the earth, overturn boulders, transverse countless square feet of river bank and surrounding cliff and forest. We investigate every inch of land for hours. We find nothing. I am near exhaustion, my body spent.

“All right you guys,” Jagger calls, “I say we head back to the Checkpoint. It’s going to start getting dark in a couple hours, and…” He trails off, not needing to explain further. None of us want to be caught in the woods after dark. We all welcome the safety of the Checkpoint’s clandestine walls.

Wiping the dirt off my hands onto my pants, I am picking the dirt out from under my nails when it happens.

Matteo stands near the cliff’s edge, repacking the earth into the ground where he dug. So conscientious, he is. Rebuilding our manmade destruction back to its initial beauty. Ronan stands nearby, watching him until Jagger instructs our departure. As Ronan turns to follow Jagger’s path, his foot catches a wet spot of moss. He goes down, hard, and crashes into Matteo in a clumsy, solid collision. The force of the collision sends Matteo flying, an unwitting sparrow soaring above the rapids below.

But Matteo has no wings.

He lands in the water of the Dead River with a garish splash. Ronan stands, frozen in horrified silence, as the rest of us rush to the cliff’s edge, shouting Matteo’s name. With that, Matteo is taken.

I hear his screams from below. He is thrashing wildly, grabbing in vain for something – anything – to grab hold of. But the water only drags him further downstream. Jagger rushes down the cliff’s edge in the direction the river is taking Matteo’s wiry frame – so small, a ragdoll among lions tossing it to and fro.

Matteo is tiring from the effort. He splashes and kicks desperately, trying to force his way back upstream. He slips under the surface, then back up again. More kicking, more thrashing. Then under. And up. I see his head connect with a boulder jutting out of the river, hear the horrible crack above the water’s angry roar. The screaming stops.

I watch helplessly as his limp body is lashed upon one jagged rock face after another, violently tossed between the angry river rapids. The scene looks almost peaceful, in a strange way; as if Matteo is only asleep. Enjoying an unconventional nap in the water. Yes, that has to be it. This isn’t real. It is too beautiful a place for anything truly bad to happen.

My mind is numb, my body paralyzed. Someone is screaming again, I think. I slowly realize that that someone is me.

Matteo’s bobbing head commands my gaze again. His limbs no longer flail and his backpack pulls him further and further down the river, away from us. He is going to go over the waterfall. I’m not sure that matters now, not anymore. I know we have already lost him.

I watch him disappear from sight, over the waterfall’s beautiful, deadly edge. He is gone.

And then, through the veil of tears that shrouds my world in a hazy blur, my eyes land on a small white flower growing proudly on the riverbank below, standing brave and tall amid the storm.

Be first to comment