Chapter 14 – Matteo
I’ve never been so sore in my life. Is this normal, this feeling that my body actually died several days ago and is now in some heinous state of decay? Gods, I’ve got more sore parts than not. My back aches, my thighs burn, my butt is on fire and my calves scream in protest with every step. Are the others’ muscles defying them as well? Or is it only mine? I know with my scrawny frame that I’m not exactly the quintessential picture of physical strength, but gods.
Glancing around at each member of the group as we climb, I notice that either my peers truly aren’t as sore as I am, or else they’re great pretenders. Ronan blazes forward, leading the group and yammering on about where all the other Seekers could be, that they’re probably dead by now, how we just have to be the last ones left, blah blah blah. Iona, behind him, presses forward with quiet strength and occasionally turns to the rest of us, rolling her eyes at Ronan’s braggart words. Kalliope laughs, her bulging backpack seemingly weightless on her suntanned, slender shoulders, and Jagger and I smile at each other as we rise side by side. Except Jagger’s confident climbing gait appears to contain much more ease than my own.
We’ve been in these mountains for eight days now. You’d think we’d have something to show for it. After eight days of no luck –unless you count the bones Kalliope uncovered and Ronan’s slip into the river– I’m not sure the treasure is even out here, or how we’ll ever manage to find it. …But what if it is? What if we do? All those years rich in legend can’t be for naught. Those stories had to originate somewhere. These thoughts keep me climbing despite my body’s angry protest.
I dream, day and night, of finding the treasure. Gods, the things I could do with that kind of fortune. For my family. For our friends. For myself. And the treasure – it could be anything. Shimmering metallic coins, stores of lavish jewels from the old world, flecks of gold sprinkled into the mountain earth. The hunger I feel for the prize is almost physical. A tangible need more than an immaterial want. But what if we’ve already passed by its location and missed it altogether? I sigh, exhausted, hoping to the gods that’s not the case.
Fishing the etching of the Stone of Sacred Promise out of my pocket, my eyes devour its lines as the map unfolds with its crinkling noise. I zero in on the place marked the Consecrated Dwelling, another locale long-rumored to hide the treasure of the gods. This place, a series of monumental abodes carved straight into a steep mountainside, are said to have housed the gods themselves. Their spirits still linger there, or so people say, protecting the place from those impure of heart. Because that isn’t creepy at all, I think. Who wouldn’t be excited to venture head-first into what could easily be the most haunted place in these mountains and lead us all to an early grave… I, for one, can’t wait.
Comparing the etching to The Order’s official map of the Checkpoints, the Consecrated Dwelling is approximately another two miles to our northeast. We can easily make that today, barring any major impediments such as my body betraying me, or a ghostly encounter with the angry spirits of the gods along the way. From ahead, Ronan calls out an obnoxious comment about us moving too slowly, and I add the possibility of our group finally banding together to kill him to the list of possible distractions. Ahh, wishful thinking.
I take a deep swallow out of my canteen and keep moving.
“We’re moving at tortoise speed, can’t you losers move any faster?” Ronan shouts.
“Ronan, you do know that the tortoise wins in the end, right?” Jagger shoots back.
Ronan aims a scowl at him. “Well the tortoise can’t win if he doesn’t move fast enough. Now let’s go, pick up the pace!”
“Easy killers. Look, there’s a lake up ahead! Can you see it through the trees?” Kalliope says. “Anybody up for taking a quick swimming break? It’s so hot out today, it would feel great to cool off.”
“What? No way, we’ve got to keep going.” Ronan whines.
“You go on without us, if you feel that way.” Iona says. “The rest of us want to take a quick dip in the lake.”
Ronan considers this, as if he’s really foolish enough to set out in these mountains and woods alone. “Fine,” he finally grumbles. “But only for a little bit. Half an hour, and we’re back on the trail.”
Jagger and I exchange devious smiles. Whatever you say, Ronan. It’s hilarious that he thinks he’s in charge, a little kid attempting to hold court while his parents carry on with their sundry chores and tasks around him.
We climb to the end of the trees’ cover, reaching the point where Kalliope waits, pointing to the beautiful scene ahead. The trees give way to a beautiful expanse of water and sky and earth and cloud, all erupting in color. The clearing is small, just large enough to hold the lake – no more than 100 meters long – and a few scatterings of lonely pines. On one side of the lake, the ground slopes gently upward, hovering protectively 15 feet above the water’s surface. The trees, and our trail, continue on the far end of this enclosure. The lake itself sparkles a deep blue, encircled by snow-capped mountaintops, varying shades of purple and blue in the distance. The sentry pine trees line the ring of the clearing, protecting us from the world outside with their tangled web of brown and forest green. The cerulean sky is crystal clear, dotted with clouds fluffier than freshly fallen snow. Birds swoop overhead, darting freely through the air in joyful play.
“Who’s up for jumping?” Jagger asks, gesturing to the small, sloping cliff.
“I’ll do it, I’ll go first,” Ronan shouts while he kicks off his shoes. Of course he has to go first. He didn’t even want to take the time to stop. I roll my eyes at the irony.
In mere seconds they’re racing up the side of the cliff, Ronan on Jagger’s heels and Iona not far behind.
“You not one for jumping?” Kalliope asks with a smile.
I shrug. “Can’t swim. Never learned how.”
Her eyes widen in astonishment. “You can’t swim?”
I don’t want to tell her that my family couldn’t afford for me to take the special classes when we were little, that my father was always too busy working his three jobs to teach me himself. So I simply shrug again. “Nope.”
Her lips curve into a warm smile, her green eyes sparkling in the sunshine. “That’s okay, let’s just wade in. We can soak our feet in the shallow water.”
Following her lead, we drop our backpacks near the others and remove our shoes. She rolls her pant legs up, revealing slender ankles and bony feet. I roll mine up as well, but I reveal skinny toes and hair atop my feet, and together we venture to the water’s edge.
Up on the rocky outcropping, Jagger has reached the top, and panting, turns to wait for the others to catch up. Ronan comes barreling past, pushing Jagger out of the way and leaping from the small cliff edge with all the grace of a titanic elephant.
He lands with a satisfying splash, sending a huge whooshing wave of water crashing over Kalliope’s and my feet. Seconds later he is gulping hungry breaths of air, yelling around to everyone, “Come on guys, the water’s great! What are you waiting for? You’re the ones who wanted to go swimming.”
“Maybe if we’re lucky he’ll drown this time,” I mutter to Kalliope.
“Could be the second time’s the charm,” she says with a wink, kicking water at me.
I cup my hands and level a fistful of lake water back at her in response. It splashes onto her legs and she laughs, the golden sunshine glittering on her blonde hair. Water swirls and splashes around us, and for a moment I forget about the Hunt. I forget about the responsibility to find the prize to provide a new life for my family, I forget about the legends of curses and hauntings, I forget about everything. There’s just sun, sky, water and this moment.
I look upwards to see Jagger and Iona still standing at the top of the cliff. Jagger pulls his shirt off and tosses it to the ground below, exposing a stomach of muscles and steely arms. If he weren’t such a good guy I’d hate him for it. He stands very close to Iona, and it looks like he’s got an arm around her shoulders. We watch as she glances down nervously, taking timid steps toward the edge, then backing slowly away. He must be trying to coax her into jumping. He whispers something in her ear and a smile spreads across her face. I suddenly get the feeling that I’m intruding on a private moment.
Kalliope sees the same thing I do. She looks at me and raises her eyebrow in a show of exaggerated intrigue. “Wonder what that’s all about.”
“Me too,” I reply with a smile, then holler upwards, “Hey you two, get down here!”
“We’re coming!” Jagger yells back at me.
He leans into her again, speaking gently into her ear a second time, and she nods. Then he takes her hand in his own, and they both step toward the cliff edge.
“Come on Iona, put your big girl panties on and jump!” Kalliope yells, then tosses a quick smile in my direction.
Iona, who had been staring directly down at the water’s surface, shifts her head up and smiles back at Kalliope. “I’m going to kill you when I get down there!” I can see her playful grin from here.
“Let’s count her off,” Kalliope says to me, and I nod.
“One…” we yell up at her. Iona looks at Jagger, who nods reassuringly. She takes another step toward the edge, a bigger step this time.
“Three!” Iona screams, pulling Jagger behind her as she leaps forward and up off the cliff’s edge. They sail through the air, her excited squeal accenting their descent. Jagger screams too, and they both flail their arms and legs as they fall. They splash into the water at the same time, sending a wave current and a shower of water droplets in our direction.
We cheer loudly as they rise to the surface. Iona splashes excitedly and bursts into laughter. “I did it! I jumped!” Jagger smiles at her, and I avert my eyes. I know better than to go poking my nose where it doesn’t belong.
We swim and splash and play without pause for the full half hour until Ronan proclaims it time to get back to business, and we all begrudgingly climb out of the water. Jagger climbs back to the top of the cliff to retrieve his sun-warmed shirt.
I take one last look around. The once crystal-clear sky is now lined with clouds, the sun weaving in and out from behind them. Turning in a slow, deliberate circle I again see all the surrounding mountaintops of this austere mountain range. I see the birds, still playing overhead, and think of the fish swimming below. These mountains are so much bigger than me, than our group, than the Hunt, and it’s a humbling reminder.
Iona rifles through a backpack, studying its contents. Jagger and Ronan wring out their wet clothing, and run hands through their damp hair. Kalliope and I slide back into our shoes. As we walk, those words Old Sam slurred through that day on the street so many years ago ring through my head, interrupting this serene sanctuary.
Seek for days, yes the treasure is nigh,
Not down below, nor on mountain high.
Go ahead and look, ‘til the end of your days,
For I know where lies the prize that leads to your grave.
The words pull me back into the chilling reality in which I have chosen to, even temporarily, live. The reality of the Hunt. Its inherent danger. All those lost Seekers… It takes a concerted effort, but I shrug the sing-song words from my mind with a shudder. Old Sam was a lunatic then, and is a lunatic today. If the treasure is anywhere at all, it is of course somewhere out here in the Whispering Mountains – where the hell else would it be? He may think he knows where, but I’d bet treasure against treasure that his words that day meant nothing. Nothing but the confused ramblings of a sad, paranoid old drunk.
I refocus my attention and fall into step with the group as we step back onto the trail.