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The Order of the Departed Daily Gazette
Three Years Earlier
City authorities seek the party(ies) responsible for the slaying of two still unidentified persons, whose badly decayed bodies were discovered yesterday by two hikers along one of the approved public usage trails in the foothills of the Whispering Mountains. Authorities say that foul play is suspected.
An operative from The Order of the Departed, who wished to remain anonymous, said, “After examining the remains, we noticed very suspicious circumstances. The first skull had two bullet holes – entry and exit points. The second skull had only one hole, and the bullet was found lodged inside. Additionally, both skulls had been severed from the bodies. We are looking at a double homicide and pray that the gods will lead us on the path to justice.”
This is just another instance of the oddities and suspicious happenings linked back to the Whispering Mountains and possibly, the legend of the gods’ lost treasure that is said to lie buried somewhere in the mountain range. Folklore detailing curses and hauntings has been circulated around the region for decades.
The discovery remains under investigation.
Chapter 4 – Iona
Jagger’s question catches me off guard. “Do we believe in curses?” Of course I don’t, curses are not real. Even if they were, the gods would protect us from them and keep us safe. Besides, if any of us believed in curses, we wouldn’t even consider joining the Hunt.
That’s when I notice Matteo and Kalliope begin to laugh, and I realize that he was joking. I need to lighten up. So I fake a smile, and then moments later it isn’t fake anymore.
Jagger is handsome. Beneath his warm brown eyes, dimples light up his smile and draw me in. His olive skin is smooth, and he is dressed in modest, well-worn clothes, similar to those that the rest of us wear. Well, except for Kalliope, hers seem much nicer. Jagger’s medium-colored brown hair is cut short on the sides, a little longer on top. His brown eyes are deep-set, shaded by prominent brow bones and eyebrows as dark as night. Underneath a symmetrical nose, his lips are marked by gentle dimples on the side…I have got to stop staring at him.
But there’s something mysterious about him, something I can’t quite put my finger on.
Don’t be stupid, I think. You just met him. Of course everything about him is a mystery. My eyes drift down his face to his lips. His lips are the lightest shade of peach I’ve ever seen, warming his face with their natural color. His chest is broad, his upper body toned beneath his faded gray t-shirt, his waist narrow.
I have got to stop staring at him.
I avert my eyes just as his holiness the High Overseer enters the room and I am overcome with reverence; I’ve never seen him this close before. Sure, on the screens from which they project his weekly lessons in the Temple, but never this close in person. He is flanked on either side by a man and a woman, Anna; the woman who showed us to our lodging for the night. I recognize the man from the Temple steps earlier. Anna’s copper hair is slicked back into a severe bun, not a hair out of place. I try to remember if it was this perfect when she left us to explore our overnight chamber, but I’m feeling overwhelmed with the gravity of the day and such details evade me. Next to her stands a man whose dirty blonde hair frames his face in messy curls. He is muscular in build, jaw chiseled and more godlike than like man. He and Anna stare back at us with empty eyes and do not smile.
How very welcoming.
Several people trail behind them, pushing carts stacked high with food. We all fall silent as we watch them unload the carts onto the round table at the far side of the room. Chicken, beef, three different noodle dishes, salad, fresh bread, some kind of soup, water and glasses of a dark red beverage that I don’t recognize. My stomach rumbles. It has been hours since I last ate, and months since I last ate until I was full.
I watch as Anna and her male assistant place unmarked black backpacks in the seat of each chair at the table, then clear the room. They never even looked at us.
“Let us begin dinner with a prayer,” says the Overseer. I bow my head in reflexive reverence to the gods as he clears his throat. “Oh holy gods, we thank you for your provision and seek your will and your protection. Prepare these young people for the hunt that is in store. Strengthen their bodies and their minds, and open their hearts to your divine plan. Praise be to the gods.”
A few Seeker voices call back, “Praise be to the gods.” I add mine with gusto.
“Now,” he says, staring at us alongside the man and woman, “Please take your seats at the dinner table.”
We all immediately obey, filing over to the mountain of hot food waiting for us. My stomach growls again, more loudly this time.
Kalliope looks at me. “I’m hungry too,” she says with a smile. “This looks delicious.”
I nod and smile, grateful for the gesture of kindness in this foreign place. We take seats next to each other at the table. I sit quietly, focusing all my attention on the food in front of me, ignoring the cartwheels my stomach turns when Jagger sits down on my other side.
Reaching down to the ground while others serve themselves, I pull up the black backpack and set it heavily on my lap. As others start to dig into the plates of food, I unzip it to explore its contents. Inside I find a watch with a compass on its face, a lightweight blanket, some strips of thin gauze and a small first aid kit to treat minor injuries, a large water bottle, some dried beef strips, a radio and a map of the mountain topography with little star-shaped symbols dotted across it – the legend at the bottom tells me these are Checkpoint locations, The Order’s sanctioned outposts within the rugged mountains. A small, diamond-shaped pin sigil with the sovereign crest of the four gods adorns the backpack’s face, and I feel an overwhelming sense of peace. I am thankful to have their protection as I make my way through The Hunt.
Growing up, my mother taught me to honor the first Decree above all else: Obey the gods. Together, she and I never missed a weekly worship service or a daily prayer. In fact, we said our daily prayers together, then retired to separate spaces of our cramped apartment to pray in solitude. When she first grew sick, I prayed more than ever before. More than any thirteen-year-old I knew, certainly. She’s been sick for four years, and I’ve never stopped praying to the Matron for her healing. I bargained and pleaded and made frivolous deals in addition to my daily prayers, sure the gods couldn’t ignore my most desperate pleas. I waited, full of naïve hope, for her to be cured, healed of the sickness taking over her body. Only she didn’t get better.
She would be furious if she knew I came here for her, but she is all I have. The medicine that she needs is expensive, much more than our meager savings from The Order’s rations. I will do whatever it takes to help her. And I’ve got the Matron’s protection on my side – it’s almost like another maternal presence in this place where my mother is not. I can feel it. I feel at peace. I will save my mother. It is the gods’ purpose for my life.
The door to our expansive dormitory cracks open again, and Anna descends the three steps with silent grace, striding confidently toward our table. “The Hunt will commence first thing in the morning, one hour after sunrise.” Anna says. The High Overseer sits silently beside her, watching us with a pensive eye. We are all eating now, happily feasting on the extravagant spread, and Anna seems happy to talk over the sound of mass chewing. We are all too hungry to wait. “Once you’re in the mountains, you will be welcome to stop at The Order’s checkpoints whenever you want – assuming you are within range. Hot food, fresh water, showers and lodging will be available to you at each checkpoint. In your backpacks you will find a map with a mark denoting each checkpoint’s location within the mountain range.”
I cease digging through the backpack to spoon some food onto my plate when the serving platters are passed my way. I bite into a steaming roll of bread, almost moaning with pleasure at its warmth and comforting flavor.
Anna continues. “Of course the rules of The Hunt are simple: The first to discover the treasure claims complete victory, and may keep its entire contents. After a small tax to The Order, of course.” Her smile is sickeningly sweet. Unsettling.
Maybe they’re not familiar with the basic rules of math, or percentages. Ask anybody in the city and they’ll tell you that thirty percent is a pretty hefty “small tax” for The Order to claim.
“You all know the legend,” she starts. “So many hundreds of years ago the four holy gods walked among man. This golden era lasted for many, many years until man became a slave to his innately evil nature. The gods saw man’s greed, man’s wicked selfishness, and knew that it was time to separate themselves from man. Man pursued the gods, but for self-seeking rather than holy reasons. The gods abandoned their Earthly dwellings, which were of course formed into the holy Temple, the ground on which we now stand. The story holds that the gods hid their worldly treasure in the mountains, to be discovered by someone pure of heart when they deem the time right. Of course you all know the rumor, that the Hunt is cursed,” she smirks, and a chill runs down my spine, and I remind myself for the thousandth time today that curses aren’t real.
“But you look like an intelligent bunch. I trust you are far too smart to fall into the trappings of fearful, uneducated minds. The simple truth is that the gods guard their treasure and protect it from the undeserving by any means necessary. And that, brave Seekers, is exactly the reason we are all here this evening. Perhaps one of you shall be the one to find it. So I pray that your hearts are pure and your motives are just.”
The High Overseer laughs softly, then stands to a position of prominence to speak. “The real explanation is that the holy gods have simply not yet chosen to reveal the treasure’s location. Their perfect timing has not yet come to pass. We thank them for their protection in this – for their infinite wisdom and foresight.”
Kalliope and I exchange glances. In her green eyes I see nervous anxiety and incredulous skepticism. I’m glad to see that she’s not swayed by the community’s ongoing lore of the curse protecting the treasure. I swallow a bite of chicken and take another sip of the dark red liquid that fills my glass. It is pungent, with a strong and bold flavor that smells somewhat smoky and a little bit fruity. Wine, Kalliope whispers in my ear. I nod. Whatever it’s called, it’s making my head feel fuzzy. I put the glass down and shove more bread into my mouth, trying to remember the last time I saw this much food in one place.
For an instant my mind drifts to my mother. I wonder what she is eating for dinner. No doubt some kind of tin canned beans or meat – an idea that pales in comparison to the feast before me in this strange place. I picture her frail body moving slowly and with great effort, as she struggles around the small apartment we share. I should be there to take care of her.
I push the thought away.
“Under the last stone you expect to crumble.”
The tight, formal script stares back at me, taunting. I lift my eyes upward and pray, Gods, please just tell me what the mysterious inscription means. My silent petition yields no immediate results, and I swallow the combined exhaustion and frustration building inside me.
Kalliope, Matteo, Jagger and I sit quietly, still studying the Stone of Sacred Promise. The other Seekers have all gone to bed and I am not far behind them, though I’m not sure whether I’ll be able to sleep tonight. Stifling a yawn, I squint my eyes as if it will help me focus on the rune stone harder.
Its bolded etchings stand out against its dark metamorphic rock background, and as I stare, it seems almost ready to whisper its mysteries into my ear. I remember learning in my history book that while no one knows for certain where it came from, most believe it is a relic from the old world, before the fall of ancient man. It is the only believed clue as to the location of the treasure of the gods, its markings allegedly symbolic of the four places widely believed to conceal the lost treasure. Though for all my prayers for wisdom and discernment, I’m still staring absentmindedly at the stupid thing, no closer to any divine revelation than I was two hours ago. Just tell me where it is so I can try to get some sleep, I think, willing the stone to unveil its deep, dark secrets.
“I don’t know you guys, maybe the other Seekers know something we don’t. Why are we the idiots wasting our precious sleeping time staring at this dumb rock again? No one’s ever proven that it’s actually linked to anything of value, right? It’s nothing but legend from people who’ve never stepped foot in these mountains,” Kalliope muses, stifling a yawn.
Matteo yawns in reply. “True, but it’s the only clue we have. It takes into account all the different theories of the treasure’s location, you know, the ones that all those people who’ve never actually been on the Hunt love to talk about?” He smirks ironically.
Kalliope lets out an exasperated sigh.
He’s right, of course. People in our city do love to talk about the Hunt, although few of them are brave enough to volunteer as Seeker. And those who don’t volunteer love nothing more than to track the progress of those who do. The Hunt is one of the city’s favorite forms of entertainment, and I’m sure that our faces are being printed onto the front page of tomorrow’s newspaper as we speak. After the Hunt begins tomorrow, all of our faces will be splashed across the front page for gods only know how long. The entire city will watch our progress by way of The Order’s Daily Gazette. Nothing makes for better entertainment than a Seeker on the Hunt, risking life and limb, battling forces seen and unseen for a treasure that may or may not exist.
Looking over at Kalliope, I remember what she said about working for the newspaper. I wonder what it’s like to go from writing the story to being its primary focus. Uncomfortable, I would think. Maybe in a few days we will be close enough that I could ask her without offending.
Gods know I’m not excited about the entire city knowing my name and monitoring my progress, taking bets on my chances and judging any missteps I might make. There are a lot of horrible things that could happen to me out there – I could fall down the side of a mountain, get eaten by a bear, lose my way and be subject to exposure, be attacked by a fellow Seeker – I shudder thinking of my mother opening the door to receive her daily paper and seeing splashy photographs of my lifeless body, sprawled at odd angles on the ground, splayed across the front page.
Blinking the thought away, I say yet another prayer for protection. That brings my total up to somewhere in the triple digits, I’m sure. Countless more than The Order’s daily requirement.
Folklore holds that the gods’ treasure is likely hidden in one of four places in the Whispering Mountains. The first rumored location is near the Tower of the Gods, a monumental rock formation, followed by the idea that it’s lost somewhere within the Consecrated Dwelling, an archaic collection of homes and rooms carved into the side of one of the mountains. Others think it’s buried someplace along a five-mile stretch of the terrifyingly named Dead River. And still others claim it’s to be found at the top of the Holy Peak, the second-tallest mountain in the entire range. I plan to search every one of those places, and then some. By the time I’m done no stone in the Whispering Mountains will be left unturned. I will not stop until I’ve found the gods’ treasure and my mother has the medicine she needs.
Matteo’s voice brings me back to reality. “I vote we start at the Tower of the Gods. It will be a hike, but that’s what we signed up for, right?” He smiles congenially with the request.
He’s right about this as well, of course. Kalliope, Jagger and I nod yes.
“Cool. From there we can decide where to go, if…” he trails off, and I mentally finish the sentence. We can decide where to go from there if we don’t find any trace of the treasure.
“And we stay together, for safety, until it becomes necessary to divide.” Jagger says.
“Agreed.” I chime in. One of my deepest fears fights its way to the surface of my psyche, the fear that we’re all hunting a ghost, risking our lives for a treasure that doesn’t even truly exist. No, I think. It’s out there. It has to be. I wrestle the fear back down and force a smile.
“Should we make an etching of this map to take with us? If that’s even what this is?” Kalliope is thinking out loud. We are all quiet for a minute, impressed by the idea and also surprised that none of us thought of it first. Why didn’t we think of that already? Furthermore, is that not an act of evil, somehow? Taking an unfair advantage over the other Seekers?
Morality aside, Matteo sets to work immediately. He tears a spare piece of paper from the map of government checkpoints, lays it over the stone and then pulls a pencil from his back pocket. After holding it up as if to begin, his hand hesitates and I can sense his unease.
My resolution surprises even me, and I find myself saying, “It’s okay. You’re not going to damage it, and besides,” I lower my voice so only he can hear it. “It’s easier to ask forgiveness than permission. Right?”
I can see Matteo weighing the options and potential consequences in his mind. A few moments later he smiles mischievously and begins tracing over the Stone of Sacred Promise’s etchings as if he hadn’t a care in the world. We watch in silence for several long moments, and when he finishes he displays the picture with great flourish.
“Ta da,” Matteo smiles proudly.
“Good work,” Jagger says, “Fold it up and keep it safe in your pack, yeah?” Matteo nods yes, and Jagger continues. “All right team, we should all at least try to rest. It’s a big day ahead tomorrow, it’s time we should all get some sleep.”
I nod, but I don’t feel so sure. I was sleepy earlier, but now part of me doesn’t want to go to sleep. Sleeping will just speed time forward to the moment I have to start the Hunt. The moment I begin risking my life for a treasure that no one can promise me even exists. The moment I leave my mother, maybe forever. How was I so certain I could do it? That I was strong enough? Brave enough? I don’t want to go to sleep because tomorrow only holds endless opportunities for me to fail. Or worse.
But in the end I follow Jagger’s instructions, along with the rest of our group, and slowly make my way into my private sleeping chamber. I clamber into the small but comforting bed, drawing the blanket up around my face, and finally drift to sleep in the middle of my prayer to the Matron for safety in the days ahead.