Chapter 10 – Ronan
There’s nothing better than the feeling of pulling off your boots after an exhausting day. I toss mine to the ground, and, ignoring the smell, wiggle my toes in their socks and roll my ankles to relieve the stiffness of hiking hard trails all day long. Ignoring the blisters that complain loudly, I give my feet a quick, rough massage. More like a pounding, if you want to get technical. My back aches like I’ve been punched all over, and my legs are a tight mess of knots and muscle tension.
I live for this feeling.
I’m alone, sitting on the bunk that I’ve claimed for the night in the Order’s checkpoint station. Kalliope is sitting next to Iona on a bed across the room, Matteo and Jagger reclined on two bunks nearby. Their own private little powwow that doesn’t include me. That’s fine though, I like being on my own. At least now I don’t have to listen to Iona blather on like an idiot about whatever she thinks she saw in the forest. Or put up with Jagger’s macho act.
We’re in another large, dormitory-style room in a small, underground compound that looks nearly identical to the one we stayed in last night, as well as the barracks we discovered underneath the Temple with all the other Seekers the night before the Hunt started. The walls are a stark slate gray, clearly designed to mimic the mountain’s natural rock formations. This place has no frills. That’s fine with me, I don’t need them.
It took us – them – half an hour to calm Iona down after the incident on the mountain. Her eyes were frozen wide in terror, her pointed finger shaking violently along with the rest of her body.
“Of course there’s no strange man in the forest,” I’d said. “There’s no one out here but us and the other Seekers. Don’t be stupid.”
“Do you really think that’s helpful, Ronan?” Kalliope had snapped.
“Don’t you have something better to do, anyone else to antagonize?” Matteo had asked.
Helpful or not, Iona wouldn’t listen to me. She wouldn’t even listen to Kalliope’s soothing coos (that grated on my ears and my patience). Her eyes were clearly playing tricks on her, still out of sorts from when she slipped and fell. I’d bet almost anything that’s all that happened. What could she have possibly seen, if it were real? She said the guy wore native, wild-looking leather clothes. Seekers wear The Order’s black backpacks and our normal street clothes. Maybe she saw yeti. I stifle a chortle. No, I’ve got it: she was scared of nothing more than an especially wide brown tree. Oh, gods save me now! Help! Help! A snort of derision rises in my nose. There’s no possible explanation other than her eyes tricked her.
Whatever it was that she saw, I’m not scared of it. Plus it didn’t bother us so I couldn’t care less. The only thing I care about is finding the treasure and keeping the other Seekers the hell out of my way. I will have that treasure. I deserve it.
I study the group carefully from my bunk across the room. Iona poses no threat whatsoever. In fact, I give her two more days before she either calls it quits or gets herself killed falling off of a damn mountain. Studying her from afar, I fixate on her full lips , that slender neck, and most of all the way her t-shirt hugs her full chest so tightly. It really is a pity that she won’t make it, I like the looks of her. Now Matteo on the other hand, him I should watch out for. He’s thin, tall and wicked smart; I’m almost positive he can maneuver himself well in the mountains, and decide I’ve got to learn to think like he does, before he does. Kalliope…well, I’m still not sure. She’s got attitude, certainly. But is she smart enough and strong enough to be a threat to my finding the treasure? I’m not quite sure. Jagger is another story. With his muscular build and sharp mind, Jagger is hands down my biggest threat in this group. That guy’s got some kind of personal stake in this Hunt, I can feel it.
But don’t we all?
My thoughts are interrupted by an attendant entering our room. It is the same petite red-haired woman who welcomed us after the ceremony on the Temple steps. Anna. Despite her small frame, Anna looks like the kind of woman who gets what she wants. I like that.
“Hello Seekers. I do hope you remember me from your first night beneath the Temple. In case you’ve forgotten, my name is Anna,”
Who could forget?
“…and I am the High Overseer’s personal assistant. Welcome to Checkpoint Number 7, where you have sought refuge and rest for the night. I speak on behalf of The Order of the Departed when I congratulate you on your progress thus far. The gods would be very proud of your determination, resilience and strength.”
Kalliope’s voice cuts urgently through the room, a street-hardened mutt with a fresh bone. “But what about what happened in the forest? None of your staff would answer our questions at dinner. Can you tell us what it is that Iona might have seen by the lake?”
The minute we arrived at Checkpoint #7, Iona had immediately begun questioning any and every staff member she could find about the secrets they were keeping from us. “What – no, who – was that in the woods? Are you spying on us? Or are we in danger of some kind?” Kalliope participated too at first, badgering passersby with well-crafted questions, almost as if she were conducting an interview. Or an interrogation. Despite their best efforts, Iona and Kalliope failed to elicit a single answer.
Anna smiles impartially, her tone polite. “I’m sorry miss, but I’m afraid I haven’t the slightest idea what Ms. Keene claims to have see-”
“Claims? I saw what I saw, it was real.” Iona’s voice is tinged with hysteria.
Anna raises one hand calmly, and goes on. “Perhaps it was merely a hallucination brought on by exposure and exhaustion.”
“Or stupidity,” I mutter under my breath. Jagger’s eyes dart to mine; if looks could kill… “Gods, it was just a joke,” I grumble.
“It wasn’t a funny one.” Jagger whispers back.
“Hallucination? No, you weren’t there. You don’t understa–” Iona protests.
“I’m terribly sorry, but we really must move on. His holiness our High Overseer is waiting to share a few words with you.” Pulling a small, black remote from her pocket, Anna clicks a combination of buttons, and a screen slides down the far wall. A few more buttons bring it to life. A few more, still, and the Overseer’s face stares back at us.
“Greetings, brave Seekers,” his voice is strong, with the unmistakable tone of someone who is well aware of his power. “You have pleased the gods well with your search thus far. I too have been seeking – but I seek the gods on your behalf. I seek the Matron’s protection to travel with you through the mountains. I seek the Warrior’s strength to hold you up when you feel you cannot go on. I seek the Benefactor’s good fortune and prosperity on your behalf. And lastly, I seek the favor of the god of the Hunt, that one of you may find the treasure belonging to the gods of old.”
I roll my eyes, entirely sure of the reason he’s so hopeful – he wants his cut.
“But I speak with you tonight not to share with you my hopes for your prosperity, but instead to share unhappy news. Today the mountains claimed one of your fellow Seekers.”
I blink stupidly, unsure of what I’m hearing. Did someone really die out here? Already? That can’t be, we’ve only just started our searches. But the grim looks on the faces of my fellow Seekers tell me that it must be true.
“His name was Remus. He fell from a cliff near Throne Mountain, the other Seekers in his party alerted us immediately. I am informing your fellow Seekers at other Checkpoints throughout the mountains, and will then begin the sorrowful task of notifying Remus’ family back in the city.”
Throne Mountain, a massive chair-like rock formation, is said to have been one of the places the gods sought rest and restoration in the mountains. A holy place, somewhere near the Dead River. It is deep within the mountains; the dead man’s group must have hiked through the night to reach it. Hiking out here in the dark is a great way to get yourself killed – maybe that’s what happened?
“I shall light candles on the Temple altar tonight in his honor, seeking blessings from each of the gods. I will light some for you all, as well. I pray wisdom and safe-keeping over you all. Be smart, and be safe, Seekers. We do not want to lend credence to any more of these…unsavory imaginings that surround these mountains. Now, go forth with the gods’ protection. Farewell, Seekers.”
The hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. Why should he care what people think of the rumors and legends? A guy is dead. That’s serious. But then the signal cuts out, and the Overseer is gone as quickly as he appeared.
Anna steps back to the front of the room. “Please be sure to pray for comfort and peace this evening, for Remus’ family and friends. Now I will leave you to plan the next part of your journey. Goodnight, Seekers.” She bows her head slightly in our direction, then exits the room. And with that, we are alone again.
Pushing myself up onto my aching feet, I stride toward the rest of the group. “Heavy stuff,” I say.
Four pairs of curious eyes stare back at me.
“What? I’m not allowed to be sad? Someone died, you guys do understand that, right?”
“Of course we do, it’s just that,” Kalliope pauses. “You’re not exactly Mister Sensitivity. I’m a little surprised you care at all. I would think you’d be pleased with your increased odds.”
“Gods, yeah. Fine. I’m a monstrous sociopath with no regard for human life, you’re right. Is that what you think?”
She only glares back in reply.
“You don’t know the first thing about me, so don’t you dare pass judgment.”
“That’s enough,” Jagger interrupts. “Everybody just calm down and let’s move on.”
I don’t know who appointed Jagger the leader, but for some reason I find myself obeying his command. Several silent seconds pass, until we appear calm to his satisfaction. Then he holds up a copy of the daily newspaper.
“Have you guys seen this?” When no one replies, Jagger begins to read. “Terrorist Group Continues Attacks on The Order of the Departed’s Temple.”
“They’re still at it?” I’ve heard about the attacks. Everyone has.
Jagger nods. “Looks like it. The article says, ‘Rebel group Havok unleashed the latest round in its violent attacks against The Order of the Departed this weekend. Around 2 a.m. on Saturday morning, a bomb detonated in the Temple’s outpost inside the Pearl. Because of the late hour no civilians were injured. Because of the small-scale nature of the explosion, no civilians residing in the living quarters twenty stories above the main commerce floors were injured. Classified as a terrorist organization, this marks Havok’s third attack in four months’.”
This is Havok’s first truly dangerous attack – I guess they decided they’re ready to be taken seriously. Their previous “attacks” were much less threatening: protests outside the Temple with Havok members’ faces hidden behind masks – that was the first one. Next came accusatory messages splayed in graffiti on the Temple’s walls. Then a newspaper takeover in which the word “CORRUPT” in capital letters appeared smeared across the Overseer’s face. And now this. I rub the back of my neck anxiously. They’ve started working with bombs now? What if people had been in The Pearl when it happened? Could they really be targeting civilians? I don’t want to think about what they may be planning next. I don’t think the Temple will be able to dismiss them so easily anymore, that’s for sure.
“Do they have any proof that Havok was behind it? I mean, maybe it was someone else?” Iona asks.
“Who else could it be?” Kalliope chimes in rather emphatically.
“There’s more,” Jagger says. “’Authorities are offering monetary rewards for anyone with information leading to Havok members’ arrests. Guilty parties once found will be punished to the fullest extent of The Order’s law.’”
A tense silence falls over our group, and we all stare at the floor. None of us knows how to react. Thanks to The Order’s powerful and watchful eye, our city is relatively free of crime; criminal acts in opposition of the church are unheard of. I nervously consider what the fullest extent of the law could mean. Only people with a death wish would screw with The Order, everyone in the city knows that.
Finally I break the silence. “I heard that Havok has somebody inside the Hunt this year. Like, undercover, or something.”
I’m met with four pairs of eyes laden with skepticism and surprise.
“I’m not saying I believe you, and I’m not saying I don’t,” Jagger begins, “but why exactly would a rebel organization clearly bent on the Temple’s downfall want to participate in an activity that is in fact run by the Temple?”
I shrug my shoulders. “Just heard the rumors. I have no idea.”
“That would be crazy,” Matteo says. “They’d be executed if they were caught. But…on the slight chance that they do have someone, I wonder who it is.”
I think back to the ceremony on the Temple steps, mentally revisiting the faces of the Seekers who surrounded me. Part of me can’t imagine any of them working for Havok. Yet another part of me can imagine them all.
“The Daily Gazette would have a field day with that one,” Iona sighs under her breath. “Can you imagine? The Temple’s most wanted criminals hiding right under its nose. How very ironic.”
“Yes,” Kalliope agrees, “it would make for a great story.”
We fall back into silence. I wonder who really is behind the Havok attacks. How many people? Is it anyone I know?
After a while, Jagger says, “We should get some rest. We’re very close to the Tower of the Gods, if we leave early we should arrive by mid-morning. We all know that the Stone of Sacred promise says the treasure will be found ‘Under the last stone you expect to crumble,’ but I think we’d be idiots not to thoroughly explore the places legends claim hide the treasure.”
Iona nods in agreement.
“Makes sense to me,” Matteo says.
I roll my eyes and say “I guess we know who’s calling the shots,” even though I agree with Jagger’s assertion.
The Tower of the Gods is probably the most famous landmark in the Whispering Mountains, a natural rock formation looming two hundred feet up into the air. It’s surrounded by similar tall, thin rocks that have been carved away by wind, rainwater and snowmelt over the years, but it’s the biggest and most renowned. I’ve heard the rumors just like everyone else that the treasure is buried somewhere within its shadow, protected by their supernatural power. Though I hate to admit it, Jagger’s right; it can’t hurt to check.
However, I still haven’t decided whether I can trust this group, and the last thing I want is to become part of their little team. I’m going to find the treasure for and by myself, thank you very much. And everyone who ever doubted me can beg as much as they want, but I’m not sharing the prize with any of them. I’ll show them all.