On Mountain High – Chapter Five

Chapter 5 – Kalliope

The vast expanse of aspens and pines is swallowing me whole. In every direction I look, as far as the eye can see, the sky-high mass of summer green leaves span the mountainsides, swallowing our little group whole. The sheer vastness of this place is spectacularly overwhelming. And not in a good way. I suddenly decide that drowning, actual drowning, is not a way that I would like to die. Just in case the gods are listening and take that kind of thing into consideration.

Sun-dried pine needles crunch beneath my feet as we begin our ascent, the burden of my assignment weighs in my mind with every crunchy step. It is a beautiful day, one that my internship editor, David, would no doubt take time to point out to everyone around him. He’s highly observational, and has taught me to be more so when it comes to my reporting. He’d no doubt dub the sky “clearer than the crystal waters of a mountain stream,” and label the air a “true delicacy, crisp and fresh as a baby’s first breath.” I always thought it funny that such a burly, brusque man would use such flowery language. The thought causes a giggle to break free of my chest, and I swallow it back down before the others ask me what’s so funny.

It’s a bad habit of mine, one that my father always took care to correct – giggling out of turn. The strangest things can set me off. Inappropriate things, even. Sometimes it happens because I think something is genuinely funny, sure. But other times it happens out of nowhere, seemingly for no reason whatsoever. After all those menacing sideways glares from my father when I’d giggle in Temple ceremonies, I learned to shut myself up.

The cry of a passing bird shakes me from my thoughts, and I am once again on the Hunt. Iona, Jagger, Matteo, Ronan and I climb in a single file line, as the path we’re on is rather narrow. It didn’t start out this way, all of us together; Ronan ignored us all morning and only fell into place with us when the Seekers started to part ways. Frankly I was somewhat less than thrilled to see him fall in step with us. Pure sunshine and rainbows, that one. As long as he keeps quiet, we’ll be just fine.

This morning we rose before dawn and began making our final preparations before The Hunt began. It was quiet in the Temple’s barracks down below the Earth’s surface, all the Seekers mostly kept to themselves as they bathed quickly, dressed and collected any personal items into The Order’s uniform backpacks we all received. Instructed to gather for an intimate breakfast, we had of course complied (what choice did we have?) and shared a silent final meal.

The Overseer’s melodramatic piety almost set me off giggling, but I managed to get it together. Instead, I focused on taking mental notes of the private, pre-dawn prayer. I studied the wrinkles adorning the old man’s face, wrinkles from countless years of intensive piousness. One wrinkle in particular captivated my attention: a deep-set V-shape between his busy gray eyebrows. The kind of mark that could only come from endless years of concentrated frowning – no doubt from intense prayer. He seemed to be the kind of man who could condemn your soul with a single sideways glance; whose unspoken power seeped from his every pore. Did he know the trance with which he transfixed others? What must it be like to spend every waking hour in service to and worship of the gods? The gods who abandoned mankind? The uncertainty of it all struck me as deeply sad.

“Holy gods, you are good. We humbly ask and anticipate your protection over these brave Seekers as they embark on your holy Hunt. Warrior, we conjure your strength and ferocity; may their hearts and minds be led by your bravery and courage. Benefactor, we humbly request that this be the year The Hunt ends in prosperity, that you would make the gods’ holy treasure’s location known to the Seeker you deem most worthy and deserving.”

A shuffle of movement captured my attention. Peeking through half-closed eyes, I made out the blurry figure of Iona across the table. Head bowed in sincere reverence, she nodded in solemn agreement at this part. I saw her lips moving ever so gently, offering up her own silent prayer. At this realization, my brow creased in keen reporter intrigue.

The prayer continued, gods it was a long one. “Matron, we invoke your protection and kindness, asking that you show favor to these brave volunteers. And finally, holy Hunter, may your will be done in The Hunt. These things we ask with the utmost reverence and adoration. Praise be to the gods.”

I recited the concluding line by rote, along with the other Seekers. “Praise be to the gods, and praise be to his holiness, our High Overseer.”

With that, we finished our breakfast in orderly silence buried beneath worlds beneath the Temple and the city we knew so well, and were then shuttled to the base of the Whispering Mountains to begin our search. No more ado, no more fanfare; the gods wouldn’t appreciate such ostentation.

We will stop at The Order’s official checkpoints as our personal searches develop during the Hunt. Or at least, we were invited to. But it was the kind of invitation that felt much less optional, and much more like a command. Although if a cozy bed, hot shower and warm meal are waiting for me inside these checkpoints as we were all promised, I think it’s the kind of invitation I can live with. I’m already dreaming of being clean again, and we’ve only been out in mountains for a few hours.

And what of the many Seekers’ different strategies, I wonder? After all, I can only speak to the plan I share with Iona, Jagger and Matteo. And now Ronan, I suppose, it looks like he is –unfortunately for the rest of us- here to stay. And that’s assuming they were all being truthful in their intent to work together until it becomes necessary to split paths and go our separate ways. I like to think myself talented in identifying deceit, though in this unfamiliar situation with these strangers, I’m no longer too sure of anything.

After studying the Stone of Sacred Promise last night, Jagger, Iona, Matteo, Ronan and I all had different ideas of where we should begin. Come to think of it, I’m sure the other Seekers did, too. We will all be going separate ways, barring any colorful social groups like the one I’ve found myself a part of. Who will I find at each checkpoint? Where are the others deciding to search first? What is their plan? Gods I wish I could crawl into their brains and find out.

Will we all make it out alive? The odds say no.

I’m not typically the type for doom and gloom, but in my time at the newspaper I’ve learned a thing or two about the curse these mountains allegedly conceal. The more recent headlines flash through my mind. “Headless Body Found in Whispering Mountains.” “The Curse of the Wild.” And most recently, “Mountain of Death: Two Bodies Discovered.” The badly decomposed bodies of two either past Seekers or unfortunate hikers were found deceased in the mountains. And not of natural causes. Both heads had been removed from the corpses’ bodies. When the heads were located? Bullet holes marked each one.

Suddenly I wish that I had a gun. And that I knew how to operate one.

“Look alive, ladies. We’re not even really climbing yet – try your hardest to keep pace, would you?” Ronan shouts from his position ahead.

Of course Ronan is at the front of the group, pretending to lead us. Determined not to give him the satisfaction of leading, I pick up my pace. My shoulder crashes into his, and I shove my way in front of him in reply.

Jagger and Matteo laugh under their breaths, Ronan snorts in derision.

I tuck a stray piece of my blonde hair back into its low ponytail and shake my head clear of the angry, antagonistic thoughts, I look up all around me and realize again how beautiful the Whispering Mountains really are. I’ve never ventured very far up or into them, as hikers are only allowed by law in certain pre-approved safe locations, but I remember spending time in the valley meadows when I was a little girl. The same summer flowers I remember bloom happily back at me today, beaming without any sense of trepidation as to what secrets lie buried, elevated all those thousands of feet above us.

We climb higher and higher, and my pace slows.

“What’s the matter, can’t handle a little hike?” Ronan sneers, brushing past me.

“Just felt sorry for you all the way back there. Wouldn’t want you feeling emasculated because you couldn’t keep pace with a small little girl like me,” I snap back. But my muscles complain, so I let him maintain his lead. I’m tougher than this. So I grit my teeth, tighten my ponytail and push forward.

After a couple hours we reach a clearing in the woods, and step into a small meadow. The lush sea of waving green grass is dotted with wildflowers of every color. Densely lined on every edge by tall pine and aspen trees with the monumental peaks of the mountains corseting us in, it feels as if we’ve stumbled into the first of the Whispering Mountains’ many untold secrets. The  air is electric, tinged with mysteries and hidden tales. This place feels protected yet exposed, intimate yet public. I feel the heat of watchful eyes on my back, yet as I scan the forest edges I see none.

This place feels forbidden.

“Beautiful,” Iona sighs, dropping her backpack to the ground. She stands behind me, arms slack at her sides, eyes raised heavenward.

Matteo nods his head in agreement, scanning the meadow to take in its full expanse. “It really is.”

“We can break here, rest for an hour or so.” Jagger says.

I expect Ronan to reply with a snarky comment, but he’s already traipsing clumsily through the meadow, crushing wildflowers carelessly underfoot as he explores.

“I wonder where the other Seekers are now,” I think aloud, wondering if they’ve already been to this place. Or maybe they’re here, just out of sight…watching us. What else could explain the strange sense of watchful eyes? It takes all my mental effort to expel the eerie feeling that we may not be alone in the meadow, that we are the unwitting focus of someone’s –or something’s- intensive stare.

Jagger kneels, and the green grass swallows him up to his waist. He pulls Matteo’s sketch of the Stone of Sacred Promise from his backpack and begins studying it. Surely he must have it memorized by now.

Collecting the glass water bottle from my backpack, I pop its lid and take a long drink, reclining on my back in the blanket of flowers. They are just like the ones I remember from hiking with my father, all those years ago.

A thud sounds heavily behind me, and I turn to see Matteo toeing a rock with his well-worn boot. “Mind if I sit?”

I nod no with a smile, and he settles in beside me.

“Did you know that Aspen trees live in family groups?” He points to the surrounding clusters of trees lining the meadow’s edge.

My eyebrows raise, interested. “No, I did not.”

“Yeah, they mass together and their roots are all interconnected underground. Pretty cool to think about, that even in the wild family still sticks together. See that group with bright green leaves?” He points, and I nod yes. “Now, see the group next to it?”

“I do.”

“Their leaves aren’t as richly green, they’re lighter, more yellow. You can tell by the leaves. They live in family clusters, just like humans.”

I feel my smile down to my toes. “That’s really nice.”

He smiles back at me. We linger in silence for several long moments, admiring the aspens. Then Matteo says, “So how are you doing? First day of the Hunt, you feeling all right?”

He asks in a way that reminds me of the awkward sweetness of new friends on the first day of school. His light green eyes are friendly and mischievous at the same time, all sparkle and play and secrets. A lock of his thick, wavy dark brown hair falls down across his forehead, and I’m glad that he doesn’t push it away.

“Fine,” I say back. “And you?”

He nods, furrowing his dark eyebrows into a tough scowl. “Climbing up 12,000-foot mountains? This is nothing; guys like me do this kind of stuff in our sleep.” He flexes a skinny arm, and I laugh in response. He looks back at me with mock offense, and then his face illuminates in another grin – those seem to come rather easily to him. Good, I think. I like the way his face brightens up when he smiles.

I suddenly notice how close we are. His arm brushes mine as he lifts his hand to sip from his own water bottle, and warmth floods my stomach. Confused by this feeling, I push it aside and focus on the task at hand: remaining focused, and finding the treasure. I’ll just have to find a way to ignore that one rebellious lock of hair and the mischievous sparkle in those green eyes.

“So tell me,” he continues, “What are you going to do with your share after we find the treasure?”

I smile playfully, grateful for the distraction, and shoot back, “What makes you think I’m sharing?”

He holds both palms up in mock surrender. “Easy killer. You think you could go it alone? You could really make it all the way to the end?”

The countless newspaper headlines announcing tragic and often mysterious fatalities in these very mountains flash through my mind. No, I think. But I respond, “I like to think so.” We sit in comfortable silence for a few moments before I ask, “What would you do with the treasure? After the Temple takes its share, of course.”

The rules of the Hunt state in no uncertain terms that whoever ultimately discovers the prize must donate thirty percent of its total value to the Temple to further its work and teachings. This is not a popular rule, but no one dares question The Order about it. I personally feel that some tax on the total prize would be appropriate, given all the good that The Order does for the city, and their extensive setup to ensure Seekers’ comfort in these mountains, but even so, thirty percent does seem rather high.

Without any hesitation, Matteo replies, “I’d make sure my family was completely set for the rest of all our lives. I’d buy a whole house where everyone could have their own room. Right now we’re all crammed into this dinky old apartment. We’d have plenty of money for groceries and food. Enough to keep that big house filled with something to eat whenever we want. Money for clothes that don’t have holes in them. Just…no more worrying about anything. That’s what I’d do.” His face is full of idealism and fantasy.

I nod like I know what he means, but I don’t at all. Growing up, my dad worked in The Order’s intelligence department. We were very well taken care of; the Order tends to see that its employees receive extra “blessings” for their service. Now that I’m old enough, I work for the newspaper, which the Order owns too, so I live comfortably. In fact, comfort is all I’ve ever known. I’ve never known what it’s like to go to bed hungry, to worry about where my family’s next meal is coming from. Those things were never concerns I had to face. Suddenly, I feel worlds apart from Matteo in this moment. I wonder what his life is like outside of the Hunt, the Whispering Mountains.

For a long time I think of nothing to say, my brain betraying my mouth. Finally I say, “I hope we find it. For your family.”

“Me too.”

We sit in silence again. A strand of hair from my ponytail falls over my shoulder, and I twirl it absentmindedly. Matteo’s mouth is squished to the side as he chews on the inside of his cheek, seemingly lost in thought.

“Hey guys, can I join you?” Iona’s voice cuts through the silence where only the gentle sigh of the wind had been moments before.

“Of course. We were just talking about what we’d do with our share of the prize,” Matteo says.

“If we manage to find it without getting killed first,” I add, forcing a playful smile.

Matteo shoots a sidelong glance in my direction. “That’s not going to happen. We’re going to find it, I’ve got a feeling.”

“A feeling? How reliable,” I tease as he grimaces at me. “Iona, what about you? How would you use the money?”

“Oh you know, just the same way as we all probably would. Just family, and stuff.”

I think I make out a hint of sadness in her eyes, but whatever I think I saw is immediately concealed by her polite smile. Subtly redirecting the conversational arc, Iona says, “This place is so beautiful, I never want to leave.”

Following her lead, I decide not to ask nosy questions just yet and instead go with the flow. It’s hard to know when to press and when to relent. Now I relent.

“I know, it’s perfect.”

I know there’s a story there, though. I’ll just have to figure it out later. For now, I focus on the beauty that surrounds me and these strangers with whom I seem to be becoming haphazard friends. Who knows if the treasure is really out there, but if I can manage to get the inside scoop without falling to my death in a rocky ravine, or – worse – becoming another faceless number in the Whispering Mountains’ mysterious death count, this will be the story of my career. The hunt has never been covered from the inside; I’m going to be the first Seeker to reveal the secrets hidden in these Whispering Mountains.

Again I shudder, and shake off the feeling that someone – or something – is watching us.

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