Chapter 16 – Matteo
“Kalliope? Hello? Are you in there?” Ronan’s hand waves obnoxiously in front of her eyes, jolting her mind back to the present from wherever it was.
“Oh, umm, yeah. I’m here,” she says, collecting herself. “Get your stupid hand out of my face.” She slaps it away.
“Gods, sorry, just trying to get you to pay attention and contribute to the group’s efforts.”
If looks could kill.
“Let’s just keep going,” I say.
Kalliope’s usually jovial, happy personality has been replaced with sullenness and quiet – and I have no idea why. Just hours ago we were laughing at the lake. I want to ask whether she’s all right, but that seems impolite. “Excuse me, but what’s wrong with you?” Yeah, who wouldn’t like to be asked something like that? She’s probably just tired, I tell myself. Nothing to worry about. Besides, it’s really none of my business.
I shift my attention to the task at hand and set about looking for signs of treasure.
Signs of treasure…signs of treasure…gods, that could be anything.
Scanning the horizon, I keep my eyes open for something, anything, that could be a clue. A thick blanket of wildflowers and lush, green grass quilts the land surrounding the cliff dwellings. The Whispering Mountains’ peaks flank us on all sides, enveloping us in an ironic image of serenity. I scoff to myself. There is nothing serene about a cursed hunt for buried treasure with unpredictable strangers. Not to mention the haunting and ever-present feeling that someone – or something – is hiding, just out of sight, enigmatically guarding the very treasure that you seek.
“…The prize that leads to your grave.”
Try though I might, I can’t keep Old Sam’s words from besieging my thoughts. Even from all those years ago, they’re still firmly embedded in my psyche. And I’m just stubborn enough to believe that I can – no, I will – prove him wrong. For a moment I consider confiding in Kalliope the words the haggard drunk said to me that day. I’m not sure that that would be wise.
“What do you guys think a clue to the treasure would look like?” Ronan calls, his voice clear even though from the sound of it he’s a fair distance away.
“Something shiny,” Kalliope calls sardonically.
“Probably buried in the ground, or in the side of a cliff even,” I yell.
“Could be a piece of accidentally discarded gold, or something,” she shouts again.
Ronan seems unaware of our game. “So, what do you think a warning sign might look like?” I think I hear a tremor in his voice. “Something that might have to do with the curse?”
Kalliope and I exchange nervous glances. “What are you talking about?” She calls.
“Come look at this,” Ronan yells nervously.
I turn in his direction to see him standing upright, but leaned forward inspecting a large boulder, about waist-high. Kalliope and I approach slowly, to find that he is crouching over its face, his eyes concentrated in fear. As we get closer, I finally make out what Ronan’s seen that seems to have rattled him
A dark, ominous handprint is scrawled across the boulder’s rocky face, marred and faded by the passing of time. The handprint is black as midnight, and a chill runs down my spine. The marking seems to forebode something sinister. A warning, almost certainly, but a warning about what? And who put it there?
“Creepy as hell, right?” Ronan asks quietly. I do not disagree.
“Who could have left this here?” Kalliope wonders to herself, slowly studying the landscape surrounding us. “What do you think it means?”
“Your guess is as good as mine,” I mumble. I do not have a good feeling about this discovery.
“Well cupcake, it’s obviously no welcoming banner so maybe we should get the hell out of here,” Ronan says. Then, he cocks his head up at us. “Unless,” he begins.
“Unless what?” Kalliope asks.
“Unless, of course, we’re onto something, and someone wants to scare us away.”
I swallow, hard.
Kalliope inhales deeply, then says, “Well, we’re obviously not in any immediate danger. Let’s not let a little handprint get to us, we have no way of knowing who left it here, or what it means. Let’s keep searching.” Her face is stern, ending all further discussion on the matter. I envy the easy way with which she commands power.
Of course, her dazzling smile and sparkling golden hair don’t hurt my positive feelings toward her, either.
“You heard the woman Ronan, back to work. Keep searching this area, there could be more where that came from. Pocket the coin and we’ll examine it tonight in the checkpoint. Jagger will be excited to see it, too.”
Ronan turns back in the direction in which he found the coin, and I follow Kalliope.
“I hate that he was the one to find that coin. Why not one of us?” she admits when she hears my feet fall in step beside her.
“Me too,” I match her sentiment in spades. We fall into a sulky silence, until I say, “Hey, can you keep a secret?”
Her light green eyes are alight with mischief. She adjusts her backpack on her shoulders. “Of course. What is it?”
I glance around in every direction, making sure Ronan is out of earshot. “You know Old Sam?”
She nodded to the affirmative. It was a stupid question, of course she knew Old Sam. Everyone did. Even when you’re endlessly trashed and homeless, your status as one of the select few surviving Seekers to ever return home tends to make a lasting impression on people.
“A long time ago, several years, he told me a riddle. A riddle about the treasure’s location.”
Her eyes grow wide, and she shifts the backpack on her shoulders again. “Well, he’s an old drunk. I wouldn’t take anything he said very seriously. But what’s the riddle?”
I clear my throat nervously, ready to recite it from memory.
“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.”
Her eyes grow wider with every passing line I speak. “Gods, Matteo,” she mutters. “If that’s true, and I’m not saying that it is, gods only know what kind of incoherent babblings that old drunkard could be spewing out, but if it is…”
She stares up at me with an expression of vast meaning. “…that could change everything.”
I breathe out a breath I didn’t realize I’d been holding in. “Right. Doesn’t it sound to you like he’s saying the treasure may not actually be buried in the mountains?”
“It does. But again, who knows if he’s right? Though that could certainly explain why the treasure has never been found…” I see her mentally finishing the statement.
I voice it out loud. “But it doesn’t explain why so many people seem to die or go missing when they go looking for it.”
She nods. “It goes against all logic, but…serious question: Do you believe in curses?”
Shrugging my shoulders after a long moment, I admit that I’m not sure.
“Who else knows what Old Sam said to you?”
“No one. Not even my brother who was with me that day. He was out of earshot.”
She adjusts the backpack again. “Great. Let’s keep this just between us, at least for now. Okay?”
“Okay,” I hesitantly agree. Though I’m not sure why she cares who else I tell. We continue searching, each heading in separate directions then sweeping back toward the location where Ronan said he’d be. She yells sarcastic comments in my direction, and I volley them back. We both laugh while we search. But our banter feels forced, our dynamic has intangibly shifted. We aren’t as innocent as we were moments earlier. Secrets have a way of shattering innocence, I suppose.
Suddenly my ears pick up on a sound – faint, but absolutely distinct. Off in the distance somewhere, someone was making a lot of noise. It was a scream – a scream of bone-chilling, heart-stopping terror.
My pulse accelerates as the scream grows louder. Louder. LOUDER, until –
Ronan comes tearing out of the forest into the field where Kalliope and I stand frozen in panic. He sprints closer and closer to us, his scream becoming more and more eardrum-shattering with his every bound toward us. When he is close enough, I see the fear of the gods is in his eyes.
Kalliope is the first to break from our stunned tableau. Ronan is heading straight toward us, and he’s not slowing his pace. Extending an arm, she clasps her hand expertly on Ronan’s upper arm, causing him to whirl around her, spinning them both in a circle from his momentum.
“Ronan! Ronan!” She says, her voice loud but her tone soothing. “What happened? Are you hurt? What happened in the woods?”
He does not answer, just continues his shrill wail. He collapses to the ground, drawing his hands protectively up around his face, head jolting frenziedly about in every direction. “They… They…”
Kalliope is on her knees in front of him, pleading with him to speak. I maintain my distance; something tells me approaching him may not be the best choice right now.
“Who? ‘They’ who?” I call.
“They’re out there, in the forest,” he finally blurts out between greedy gulps of air. “They- they…”
“Who’s out there in the forest? What did they do?”
“People, there are people. Iona was right, Iona was right. She didn’t lie, she didn’t. I’m not lying. There are people. They chased me.”
A chill tingles its way from the nape of my neck all the way down my spine. Goosebumps prickle on my skin. My hair stands on end. We all thought Iona’s eyes were playing tricks on her; but for Ronan to see it – them – too…I don’t want to think about the odds that they both shared so similar an hallucination.
“Are you sure they weren’t other Seekers, Ronan?” Kalliope asks.
He shakes his head violently and continues his frantic glances in every direction, now accented by deep belly moans.
“And they chased you, you say?”
He nods, babbling incoherently.
“Where are they now?”
“They stopped. In the… they stopped. Trees. They stopped at the edge of the trees.”
My gut clenches and I shoot glances across the clearing, scanning the tree line for any sighting of these people Ronan claims chased him through the woods. I see nothing, spy no one.
Kalliope and I exchange worried looks as Ronan wails on the ground beneath us.
What –or who– is out there?