On Mountain High – Chapter Seventeen

Raise your hand if you’re a forgetful blogger and irresponsible author who can’t remember that she promised to post incremental chapters of her debut YA novel every Monday on her website? ***Raises hand.*** Sorry about that. But better late than never, so without any further adieu I give you On Mountain High Chapter 17!

Need to catch up? Here are links to all the recent chapters!

On Mountain High – Chapter Ten
On Mountain High – Chapter Eleven
On Mountain High – Chapter Twelve
On Mountain High – Chapter Thirteen
On Mountain High – Chapter Fourteen
On Mountain High – Chapter Fifteen
On Mountain High – Chapter Sixteen

 

The Order of the Departed Daily Gazette
Six Weeks Earlier

A homeless man known as “Old” Sam was arrested in The Pearl today for drunken, disorderly conduct. Because of the scene, officials from The Order of the Departed were forced to take action to subdue him. No civilians were harmed.

An eyewitness said, “I thought he was sleeping at first, maybe he was. He sat straight up on the bench and started screaming, just…screaming. It was terrifying, really. Then he started yelling, ‘They’re going to kill me,’ ‘Don’t let them kill me,’ and ‘Old Sam knows where!’”

The man continued until sedated by The Order’s authorities, shouting about “the people” in the mountains. Three empty liquor bottles were found in the direct vicinity.

He is the first person to be arrested since The Order’s new peace laws. He will spend one week in the Temple’s prison unit.

 

 

Chapter 17 – Ronan

I’m not crazy.

I’m not.

I know what I saw.

And now I know what Iona saw that day, too.

It’s real. They were real.

I’m not crazy.

I shouldn’t have gone off track.

I shouldn’t have left the group.

I’ll stay with the group.

I’m sorry I left the group.

I’m sorry.

I’m not crazy.

I’m sorry I left the group.

I’m sorry.

I’m sorry.

I’m sorry.

 

***

 

Kalliope says something, but her voice is far away. Foggy. Her words are so far away. Matteo says something. His voice is far away, too. They walk next to me, flanking me on either side. I don’t know where we’re going. Maybe I knew at one point, but remembering is hard right now and I can’t seem to make my brain focus. Everything around me is fuzzy. My heart still beats in my throat. Kalliope wanted to loop her arm through mine but it scared me. I fell down, the world turned black. Woke to screaming. Loud. Wind screaming down the mountains, birds screaming in the trees, screams in my ear. Those are me. She didn’t touch me again. I see them looking at me. Like I’m fragile. Damaged. Broken.

I’m none of those things. I’m strong, brave, victorious. I am Ronan.

I’m not crazy.

I barely comprehend what’s happening when we rejoin Jagger and Iona. I say nothing. Stare fixedly at my shoes and try to ignore the muffled sound that I know is the four of them talking about me, as if I weren’t standing right next to them. Don’t make eye contact.

A hand lightly touches my shoulder and I jump away as if it were electric.

I’m not crazy.

 

***

 

The setting sun casts shades of red and orange and gold and yellow through the forest. I am afraid to look up. I stare only at the ground.

The redheaded girl, Anna, stands outside, waiting to greet our group as Jagger, Kalliope, Iona and Matteo lead me into the Checkpoint. I say nothing.

I’m not crazy.

 

            ***

 

There are two new people at dinner. People I don’t recognize. I don’t like that. I am wary of the unfamiliar faces now. It reminds me of what happened in the woods. I sit at the far end of the table. Iona scoots closer to me, but I just scoot further away. She moves back toward the group, but I still see her stealing worried peeks down the long, cold table.

I’m not crazy.

 

***

 

 

It turns out that the two new faces belong to other Seekers, a man and a young woman. I don’t ask their names. I don’t speak to them at all.

After dinner we all sit in the dormitory room. I vaguely listen to the conversation my group is having around me. “Trap” and “campsite fire” and “golden coin” and “chasing him” are the only words that stand out. Jagger, Matteo, Iona and Kalliope talk and talk and talk – gods, they talk so much. For so long. Still, I say nothing.

Eventually a silence falls over the group – a silence that can only be that of competitors desperately vying for the same prize, willing to die for it, even; all of us believing ourselves a more worthy victor than the rest. We can’t all claim the treasure, something that my little group seems to only just realize with the addition of these new competitors into our world. We all agreed on our first night that we would stick together until it became necessary to divide. Looks like that time may be coming sooner rather than later.

Maybe I won’t stay with the group.

But I’m afraid to go out there alone. Especially after what happened.

Jagger’s voice cuts through both the silence in the room and the chaos in my head. “Have you two crossed paths with any other Seekers?”

The new man and young woman look up across the room at him, visibly uncomfortable with the idle chitchat. “No. No, we haven’t.” The girl finally says.

“Right. Lots of space for people…and treasures…to stay hidden if they don’t want to be found.”

I can see the wheels in Jagger’s mind turning, trying to find a way to extract information from them without asking about the thing they obviously wouldn’t share with us, their competitors: their progress. Any clues. Big ideas. Plans. All of that is off limits. No one has to say it; we all know it sure as we know the sun will rise in the morning.

“So,” Matteo begins hesitantly. “Have you guys seen anything…unusual…out there?”

The two return his question with blank stares.

Kalliope sighs. “What he means is, have you seen anything, anything at all, that would lend credence to the legend of the curse?”

Either they still don’t understand, or they don’t want to answer. They sit, staring back at us in spectacular silence.

“Have you seen anyone in the woods that isn’t like us? People who are clearly not Seekers? People who are watching us, who may want to…” Iona pauses, swallowing a deep breath of air, then continues. “…hurt us?”

Kalliope nudges her backpack with her toe and gives Iona a look of surprised approval.

I see the understanding take over the two Seekers’ faces. They look at each other for a long moment, as if communicating telepathically. Finally, the man speaks. “You mean…you’ve seen them too?”

A mental shudder takes hold of my mind as I remember being in the woods earlier that day. I won’t be sleeping much tonight.

 

***

 

Lying in bed, I hear the snores from my fellow competitors as they breathe in and out. I tried to sleep, but every time I close my eyes I see the faces again. I’m back in the woods. I step away from Matteo and Kalliope – I tell myself it’s only for a few minutes, and set off exploring a little deeper into the forest. I’m going to find more gold coins. The sun streams down through the tall pines, illuminating the ground in striped swaths of golden light. All the flowers and green grass of the open field just yards away gives way to dead pine needles and small, moss-covered rocks lining the forest floor. The extreme quiet is peaceful, and I relish the moment of privacy in the primordial woods. I haven’t been truly alone since the Seeker ceremony that day at the Temple. I take deep breaths, drinking in the crisp mountain air.

That’s when I see them.

Just the eyes, first, like Iona talked about after that day at the lake. Six eyes, all staring fixedly on me. Then I make out the bodies. Masculine, tall, muscular, covered in strips of leather clothing, hides of some kind. Long, disheveled hair and bushy eyebrows. Dead expression on their faces.

I am frozen in terror.

The one in the middle, the biggest, takes a bold, deliberate step toward me. He sees me start, and freezes where he stands. We stand there in a still draw, no one moving. Then, without a moment’s warning, the two on either side take long strides in my direction.

Scrambling as fast as I can, I turn to run, and slip on a rock’s mossy face. I scamper to my feet again, stealing a terrified glance behind me, to see that they’re all three walking quickly toward me. I begin to run. I hear their footsteps quicken as well.

Gods, they’re chasing me.

Willing my feet to go faster, I sprint as hard as my body will allow. I crash through tree branches, stumble over rocks, but I keep going. I can hear them closing the gap of space between us, they’re gaining on me. Faster, faster, faster I push. I can see the clearing marking the edge of the field where I know I will find Matteo and Kalliope. I have to reach the field before these strangers reach me. Gods only know who they are or what they want with me.

Almost there, only a few yards more. They’re so close on my heels I can hear their breathing – deep, steady. Not labored, like mine. They’re used to this altitude, I realize. They live here, they must. White hot terror courses through my veins as I realize that if they catch me, I might never see home again. I might never make it back down out of these mountains.

A scream of terror sounds in my ear like a shrill alarm and I cross the final steps into the safety of the field. Daring to turn, I realize the three men have stopped at the forest’s edge, giving up the chase in favor of concealing themselves in the forest’s thick tangle of branches. They still glare at me, their chins angled downward in a menacing scowl.

I sprint even harder, desperate to put as much distance between these strangers and myself as possible. I will never be far enough away from them.

 

***

 

Shooting straight up in bed, I realize I am gasping for air. I choke down deep, hungry gulps and steal glances around the room, petrified that somehow, someway, the men tracked me down and have come for me even within the safety of The Order’s Checkpoint station. Sheets and blankets tangle in and around my legs, weaving them into a cotton-woven trap, and I struggle against their constraints as I kick them off of me and onto the floor.

A cool hand settles on my arm, and I wheel around, ready to deck whoever it belongs to. Especially if it’s one of the men from the forest.

It’s Iona.

“Shhh,” she says. “It’s okay. I understand.”

She holds out her hand, her white palm reflecting the white moonlight seeping in through a window. I reluctantly take it. “Let’s go talk,” she says, leading me out of the dormitory.

As we walk, I think of my brother. Did those people in the woods kill Riven? That was so many years ago, how long have they been there? Are they always there? Where did they come from? I wish my brother was still alive so I could ask him these and so many other questions I never had before.

“Can’t sleep?” Her voice is timid, careful. A stick rattling the hornet’s nest.

I nod no.

We sit back at the dining hall table where we ate dinner not very long ago. Mystical under the cover of the midnight moon, the dark hall is shrouded in an ominous darkness with a nighttime air of secrecy. Shadows haunt the room’s corners, breathing eerie life as they sway with each cloud passing over the moon.

“Do you want to talk about it?”

Of all the people in the world I could talk to, Iona’s pretty damn well near the end of my list. She’s weak, both mentally and physically, she contributes very little to our group, and frankly she’s annoying as hell. She is the last person I want to talk to, or be indebted to for a timely display of kindness.

But it would appear that I don’t have many other options.

“Sure,” I reluctantly growl.

She ignores my tone. “All right then.” Her voice is sickly sweet, and I hate how she talks to me as if I might snap, melt down, at any second. It’s the same kind of voice the Order-issued therapist used on me when I was forced to attend weekly sessions after Riven died.

Stupid.

“How many of them did you see?” She asks.

“Three.”

“Were they… did they… what did they look like?”

I consider the question before answering, though I don’t know why I hesitate. She’s seen them too, I remind myself. She doesn’t think I’m crazy.

I’m not crazy.

“They looked,” I begin quietly. “They looked…wild.”

I can barely make out her reaction in the dark, but I hear her sharp inhale.

“They were tall, taller than me. Long hair, dark. Messy looking. They looked dirty, like they hadn’t bathed in days. They were wearing animal hides, and strips of leather.” I gulp, remembering their dark facial expressions. “They chased me. They tried to capture me.”

Hot wetness streams down my cheek. I don’t know when I started crying. Hastily I wipe the tears from my eyes, suddenly thankful it’s as dark as it is. There’s nothing to cry over, I remind myself. I got away. Iona doesn’t think I’m crazy – I’m not. But gods, I haven’t cried in years. Since Riven died.

Luckily Iona either doesn’t see my efforts, or is gracious enough to pretend not to notice. “So…like the  man I saw, then.”

I shrug, remember she can’t see me, and then mutter, “I guess.”

“Who do you think they are? What do they want? I mean, they have to want something if they’re following us through the mountains. Or…” she trails off, processing the thought. “Or are there that many of these…wild men…out there, that there’s always one close by, no matter our location?”

Her words echo in my mind, an entirely new – and terrifying – concept. I wonder how many Seekers have encountered these people over the years. How long have they been here? Does the Order know? Surely not. No one would be allowed to live outside of its laws and regulations. The gods would’ve forbidden it.

“So you don’t think, what’s her name, the redhead and the Overseer and the rest of The Order’s officials, you don’t think they know these people are out there?” I ask incredulously.

“They couldn’t,” Iona says, listing off all the reasons I just considered moments ago. “The command of the gods is very clear, men are to live in community with one another under the divine leadership placed over us by the gods themselves. The Order would never allow it.”

How many of them are out there? It chills me to my core to think that there could be any unknown number of wild people out there, living indigenously in the woods, watching us. Waiting to attack. What do they want?

An involuntary shudder makes its way down my spine.

“One thing’s for sure,” she says quietly.

I stare at her, trying to focus on her eyes in the darkness.

“I don’t think they’re happy we’re out here.”

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