Today we’re doing something new. It’s a little bit scary, but mostly exciting. I really hope you like it.
Today I’m going to share my book with you.
If you’ve been here before, you might know that about a year ago I wrote a book, which I called On Mountain High. And then, that I pitched it to literary agents. And more recently, that path didn’t work out. It just wasn’t the right time, and that’s okay. And yes, I am currently working on a shiny new manuscript.
Part of me is afraid that it didn’t work out for On Mountain High because, frankly, it’s bad. Because it’s poorly constructed, the plot isn’t interesting, or –the worst fear of them all– that I am a bad writer.
But it doesn’t make sense to work so hard on something for so long and then never show it to anyone. And despite all that I have yet to learn, how much I hope to improve in the future, I still believe in this book simply because I loved it enough to write it in the first place. For that reason, I am putting my big girl panties on, pouring myself a stiff drink and posting the first excerpt.
Today begins a new chapter (Get it? As in books? …Bueller?) in which I will be sharing my entire book on the blog. I’ll post one complete chapter at a time, maybe more if I’m feeling wild. Who knows? Life is a mystery! The long and short of it is that now, every Monday, you can come here and read the next chapter in the story.
Like I said before, I really hope you like it.
On Mountain High by Lindsay Landgraf Hess
They say an ancient treasure lies hidden in the mountains.
They say the gods buried it there before they left.
They say it is cursed.
But no one knows for certain.
For few who leave in search of it ever return home.
Chapter 1 – Jagger
I’ve never been into the Whispering Mountains. Not very far, at least. Sure I’ve explored the hiking-approved areas in the foothills, but a real expedition into the mysterious peaks? Never. It is forbidden. The Hunt, of course, is the only exception.
Nerves knot like tangled brambles in my belly. My entire body is tense with anxiety as I walk through the city, breathing in the significance of the day. The usually jam-packed streets are quiet now. Their standard throng of world-weary pedestrians is decidedly absent. On any given day this street would teem with life as people shuffle along to the Pearl, the harvest fields or wherever it is that they work. But not today. I know where they all are. They’re at the Temple, where the Hunt’s opening ceremony will begin in five short minutes.
I am late. Again. Lost in yet another daydream playing out scenes of all the different ways I’ll spend the prize when I find the treasure. My mother’s familiar expression of deep-set worry flashes through my mind suddenly, and I quicken my pace to make up the lost time.
My feet seem to carry on without the consent of my brain and its nerves, stepping endlessly forward along my path. One foot after the other, right. Left. Right. Left again. I pass the crumbling buildings with their rusted steel beams exposed – quiet statues, relics of the old time, from long before. I try to imagine that long ago time of peace and prosperity, the one The Order teaches schoolchildren led to greed and corruption. Before the gods left, when gods and man lived in harmony – not as equals, no, but as tangible companions. I picture the now decaying buildings as shiny and new, forcing my brain to imagine the once gleaming steel, the rich tone of the freshly laid brick and the dazzling sparkle of the glass windows. It’s a hard vision to conjure, given that they are now little more than slums slouching in the shadow of their former glory, but at one time the sight must have been spectacular. What was life like in the time the gods walked among men?
Now each decrepit building bears the diamond-shaped sigil, the crest of our holy gods, just above its main entrance. The top of the sigil bears the brave and muscular figure of the Warrior, fierce in righteous battle and worshipped for freeing us from the bondage and weaknesses of our ancestors. Beneath him to the right there’s the Benefactor. The Order teaches that we have him to thank for the prosperity our city enjoys. The idea that our city is prosperous elicits a derisive snort as I walk. On the left there’s the Matron, who is kind and benevolent and answers our hearts’ prayers. They say she is gentle, compassionate, loving. And at the bottom, the Hunter. The god that presides over The Hunt. Together they make up the holy power our city reveres, a unified power infinite in capability and supremacy.
If you believe in the gods, that is. I stopped believing in them long ago.
Of course it is blasphemy to voice such disbelief. Not believing in the holy gods is a crime punishable by death. So to the casual observer, I make sure to appear every bit as pious as the next man, and I often wonder how many others are putting on the same show. They can’t all believe this shoddy story, can they?
The Order of the Departed’s esteemed High Overseer would have us all believe it, swallow every word whole. I, for one, prefer to think for myself.
I’m getting closer. My sharp ears pick up what sounds like a low and far-away hum. Closer and closer to the Temple I travel, until I am there and my thoughts are interrupted by the thunderous murmur of many thousands of raised voices. Rounding the corner around the final city block on my journey, I have arrived. There are several hundred thousands of people in my city, we are all that’s left of that ancient time. We will all be here today.
The Temple stands on the edge of the city, a silent, enigmatic guardian of the perimeter and its inhabitants. The Whispering Mountains looming silently behind its harsh shoulder. They surround our city for hundreds of miles in every direction, as beautiful as they are dangerous. Out in those mountains lie endless unknown perils, a long-held mystery of a curse and the possibility of a treasure so vast the mind cannot conceive.
No one would survive out there on their own, The Order preaches, though plenty have tried. Few ever returned. They rarely do. The round, hopeful face of a young man who used to work alongside me in The Order’s security unit springs to the forefront of my mind. Five years ago the Hunt took him, just like it took my father. Like it took so many others. His wife begs on the street now – she probably does much more than beg in the protective shadows of the alley. Thank gods she finally learned to stop her sobbing in public; I personally think their departure had less to do with any emotional healing and more to do with those nasty bruises that appeared on her cheekbone one day. The Order can’t have wild, unruly women sobbing in the streets. It makes them appear incapable of tending their flock. Social disquiet is no way to command respect.
Though the sun beats down on the back of my neck, a cool breeze from the mountains picks up and a shiver traces a chilly path down my spine. My stomach turns over, now an entirely solid mass of anxious knots, and the air is electric. The smell of freshly baked bread wafts in the air – no doubt originating from The Order’s vast estate near the Temple, few else could afford such a luxury. The smell takes me back to the times when my family was complete, when my mother would save our money to purchase a single slice of fresh bread for the three of us to share on special occasions. There was so much joy in our kitchen, though we had so little. My father was a big part of it. I remember him teaching me about the mountains and their many mysteries in that very kitchen.
The most famous of the secrets, of course, is the legend of the gods’ lost treasure. The reason we’re all here today. We sat together in the kitchen of my family’s old apartment. I was eight years old. Could that really have been just ten short years ago? It seems like it happened in another lifetime, to someone else entirely. I remember being completely enraptured by the words my father spoke in his hushed, conspiratorial way.
The gods used to walk among men, until men became overcome with greed and selfishness and proved themselves unworthy of fully knowing the gods’ true power. The gods decided it was time to leave, that separation would drive man to seek higher knowledge. Man did not like this. There was war not in the heavens, but on Earth. My flesh prickled into goose pimples at this part of my father’s story. In the end the gods left, burying their treasure to protect it from man’s greed and wicked nature. Man has been searching for it ever since, and now we have The Order’s generous support. The treasure’s irresistible siren song of immeasurable worth has driven many a man to risk life and limb for the hope of finding it. And I am about to join their ranks.
But I am no hero; my search is not fueled by hope. It is fueled by something more animalistic, more visceral. Revenge.
I will have my revenge.
The growing swarm of civilians larger than all the others I can remember; I’ve never seen the place so crowded. Because most of the city turns out for the ceremony every five years, it always takes place outside on the Temple steps. The city’s population is so large we could never all fit inside at once. Instead we are divided into groups for worship based on profession, and attend only our designated weekly service at the Temple – The Order and all of its officials and employees worship on Sunday, the holiest day. Then farmers, ranchers and grocers on Monday, textile merchants and cobblers on Tuesday, traders on Wednesday, doctors and medical workers on Thursday and educators on Friday. On Saturday, we rest.
Well, The Order rests. The rest of us keep working. Every other day of the week, people pray and offer worship to the gods in the privacy of their homes and businesses at the designated times. The call comes three times each day – early morning, midday and evening. If you do not cease activity to answer the call to prayer, there is punishment. And The Order always knows.
I scan the crowd, recognizing a few faces from work here and a few faces from around town there. After a few minutes I spot the woman I’ve been looking for – my mother – and with quick strides, I head in her direction.
“Jagger,” she says as she pulls me in to a tight hug. “Honey. How are you?”
“Fine,” When she hugs me I can almost feel her warmth fill me to my core. I try my best to remember this feeling. To pocket it and save it for later. “You?”
Her mouth curves into an easy smile, one that reaches her soft brown eyes. Though her face is marked by age, anyone can see that she is a beautiful woman. My father used to say I had his ruthless thirst for adventure and her enchanting charm. A dangerous combination when not used responsibly, he warned.
Now my charming mother reaches up to rest her hand on my shoulder in a loving maternal gesture. “I’m doing well. Nicholas should be here any minute.”
She remarried last year – a banker for The Order named Nicholas. Though we don’t know each other well, Nicholas makes my mother happy and cares for her well. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that they now live in a private apartment on The Order’s estate grounds. She wants for nothing, and has a good life. Surely my father would have appreciated that. Out of the corner of my eye, I study her silently. I take in her shoulder-length blonde hair, now tinged with gray strands, the delicate wrinkles around her eyes. To her, today’s event is little more than a social gathering, a place to see friends and spend some time with her son. She has no idea what I’m about to do. And with the memory of the love she lost to the Hunt ever present, she isn’t going to like it when she finds out.
The High Overseer, the supreme leader of The Order of the Departed, emerges from the Temple’s cracked, burdensome doors, carrying in his hands the Book of Divine Promise, The Order’s holy text. Said to be a divine prophet hand-chosen by the gods, the High Overseer rules the city with an iron fist. There is little mercy or compassion to be had within the Book of Divine Promise – it’s the will of the gods, or so he decrees weekly from within the Temple’s warm, safe walls.
I can’t speak for the gods, but I have a hard time believing they would rule so unyieldingly, with such absolution. What about grace, forgiveness? What about helping a neighbor in need? Sure, The Order says the gods want us to extend both to others in hard times, but seem unwilling to do so themselves. Where were grace, compassion and forgiveness when it came to my love, my Merritt?
I exhale deeply. I can’t let my anger take hold right now. It will only cloud my judgment. I must keep a clear head.
The Overseer makes his way slowly to the podium set up at the top of the Temple’s steps, flanked on either side by other holy officials, his right-hand minions. The man on his left is middle aged, around the age my father would be if he were still alive. This man is forgettable – unlike my father. I watch him raise his arms and silence the large crowd. The red-headed young woman on his other side stands still, quietly asserting an unspoken authority.
When the massive crowd quiets to a degree he deems satisfactory, the Overseer steps slowly to the podium. His every move exudes effortless power and ultimate supremacy. With all the grace of a coiled snake ready to strike, the man leans into the microphone, clears his throat and licks his cracked, elderly lips. “Welcome to the 25th Quinquennial Hunt Inauguration. Let us open the day with a prayer.”
He raises both arms high toward the heavens, full to the brim of serenity and silent power, then simultaneously bows his head and gestures for us to do the same in an imposing motion. Two large stakes blaze bright with dancing flames on either side of the podium, a symbol of The Order’s and all its constituents’ religious zeal. I bow my head with an empty heart, remembering the bruises and welts that appeared on the skin of a man who wasn’t feeling particularly reverent at the last assembly.
“Holy gods, you are good. We humbly seek your presence with joyful hearts. We thank you for the many blessings you have already and continue to lavish upon us. We thank you for your ever watchful eyes. We honor you today and humbly ask your guidance, protection and safekeeping as yet another group of noble hunters prepares to enter into your mountains.”
The man next to me snorts and I murmur a hushed warning. He should be more careful, The Order has eyes and ears everywhere.
I sneak a glance upward, taking in the full sight of the Whispering Mountains, still capped with the snow of a cold, harsh winter. Not unlike the one two years ago that drove my beloved Merritt, the light of my life, to acts of crime whose punishment I was helpless to protect her from. I hate these mountains. I hate The Order. I hate everything.
Close up the accursed mountains are lined with lush green trees standing atop a sea of green grass and brown bush. Pines, aspens, oaks and more fill my line of sight as my eyes scan upward. Then, at the tree line, they stop and give way to jagged cliff faces towering all the way up to the summit of each peak. The mountains continue in every direction, as far as the eye can see, pinned down by a limitless expanse of cerulean sky dotted with cotton clouds. I feel suddenly small, inconsequential, and I wonder if the gods are really out there somewhere. Whether they really care about us. If they enjoy watching people search for the treasure year after year. If they even know that we’re looking for it?
I wonder if the treasure is even out there at all.
No, I think to myself. It has to be. It has to.
Refocusing my attention on the task at hand, I find the Overseer scanning his congregation gathered in front of the Temple. Again, he leans toward the microphone, voice thundering loudly out. “It has been five years since the last courageous Seekers entered into these blessed mountains in pursuit of the treasure of the gods. Today a new band of brave men and women will pick up their torch, carrying it with them as they venture bravely into the mountains. The Book of Divine Promise reveres those pure of heart, of holy and upstanding character. This is the word of the gods. They left their treasure for only the purest – the holiest – among us to discover. The lives lost over the years are a small sacrifice to make for such wonderful hope, and that sacrifice is made with great pride as an offering to our holy gods. For hundreds of years in our shining city on the hill, the gods walked among men. We now walk in their footsteps and seek their favor.”
The Overseer proselytizes that this is for the gods’ honor. But everyone knows that it is for The Order’s bottom line. They want their cut of the goods, and they don’t care how many people have to die before they get it. Animals. Monsters. Demons.
His homily continues. “Among all of you gathered here today stand the next men and women who will bravely ascend into the gods’ great mountains. The men and women who will battle the elements. The men and women who will seek the gods’ holy faces. The men and women who might…” he pauses dramatically, scanning the crowd of constituents, then continues. “…Who might discover the treasure.” He speaks of famed Seekers past, the tragic sacrifice of lives lost and the bravery it takes to embark on such an undertaking.
But I don’t need bravery. I have allies. Powerful ones. And I will discover the treasure.
The High Overseer’s booming voice breaks through my thoughts. “The time is upon us. The holy hour is now. I urge you to step forward, you brave Seekers. Come stand before the eyes of god and men, and declare your commitment to our holy gods and The Hunt.”
I take a slow breath in, hold the air inside my lungs, and exhale. This is it.
My body feels as if it’s made of stone. I try to lift my foot, and I can’t. I am frozen; my body taking on a life of its own in some state of autonomous defiance, betraying my strong will. But I have to move. I have to take action. It’s what my father would have done. Hell, it’s what he did do. Inhaling an even slower, more intentional breath, I focus on the muscles in my right leg and foot. “Move,” I mentally command my frozen feet. Finally my body responds. Ever so slowly I pick up my right foot and place it on the ground a step ahead of its starting position, and my left foot follows suit. The first steps into my new destiny.
I hear my mother’s panicked gasp in the same moment that she sharply grabs my arm. She whirls me around and I look down at her petite frame, taking in the desperation in her eyes. “Jagger! No. Please don’t do this, think of what happened to your father. Think of all the people who have tried this. They died. You can’t die too. There’s evil in those mountains, Jagger. Something dark and evil.”
Yes. And I will meet it blow for blow.
I want to tell her. Tell her everything. That I’ll be all right, really and truly. That I’ll come back to her. I’ll be among the choice few who return. But I can’t tell her, not without jeopardizing her own safety. She can’t know.
“Dad would have been proud of me,” I whisper, unable to meet her gaze.
Her eyebrows furrow even more deeply into a heartbroken frown. “Your father was one of the most foolish! He died out there too, just like the rest of them. Please Jagger, don’t do this.”
“I am going to finish what he started,” I say, reaffirming myself. Yes. I am going to finish what my father started. And avenge my love’s death.
Ignoring the quiver in her lower lip, I hold her gaze for a long, silent moment and finally respond, “You will see me again. I promise you.” There are tears in her eyes as I gently pull my arm from her grasp. “I love you,” I add quietly.
Nicholas, who must’ve arrived sometime during the beginning of the ceremony, wears an expression of deep-set concern. His eyebrows and mouth turn down into a severe frown, but he nods solemnly at me and pulls my mother tightly into his arms. “Be safe, Jagger. Be smart.”
I will be better than safe and smart. I will be victorious.
I turn away from them in the same moment my mother collapses into his arms in a fit of silent sobs. I can’t look at them any longer, or else I’ll never make it up the steps. It will be different this time. I will finish what my father started. The journey I begin today is as much for him as it is for my precious Merritt. I will find the gods’ lost treasure.
Pushing the thoughts away, I again command my feet to move. Slowly at first, then more confidently. I can feel hundreds of eyes staring holes into my back as the massive crowd parts and I make my way up the Temple steps. It takes forever. As I walk, I am met with mixed emotions: admiration, concern, sorrow and solidarity are only a few. A few even whisper, “Gods be with him,” and “beware the curse,” as I pass. Though I want to, I do not roll my eyes at these admonitions. When I finally arrive at the steps I am greeted with little more than a nod from the red-headed woman, the Overseer’s lackey. The Overseer himself doesn’t deign to so much as glance in my direction. I try to ignore the feeling of hundreds of thousands of eyes boring into my back, and instead stare blindly ahead.
I fix my eyes on the dark, somber Stone of Sacred Promise, which stands tall and proud in its place on the far right hand side of the stage. It is the only known map of clues leading to the treasure, and only those who volunteer for the Hunt are ever allowed to study it up close. I will get to study it later; it will be an honor. Or so they will tell me.
I’m not afraid of the curses people say have concealed the treasure for so many hundreds of years. Curses aren’t real. I don’t believe in them. Hauntings are just stories adults make up to scare kids, to keep them from stepping out of line. I never fell for that crap, and I’m not going to start now.
I’ve known real hauntings, true life curses. Merritt’s hollow eyes? The loss of my father? That is real pain, a real curse. This treasure is real, and it is mine. I know without a doubt that I am smart enough, strong enough and brave enough to find it. I cannot fail.
I notice that there are others who have joined me on the Temple steps, but I don’t care about them. Not yet. All I care about is hearing the Overseer as he announces,
“Holy gods, I present to you…”
My heart pumps furiously in my chest. Adrenaline courses through my veins. All of my planning, everything I’ve been working toward –living for– begins now. This is the beginning of everything. It starts now.