On Mountain High – Chapter Thirteen

The Order of the Departed Daily Gazette

Ten Years Earlier

The deceased body of a man was excavated from a ravine in the Whispering Mountains today. Though no official identification has been made, authorities that it is the body of Mr. Jagger Rivendell, Sr.. From the appearance of the crime scene, it seems that Mr. Rivendell is likely to have accidentally stumbled over a rocky cliff, and tumbled to his death. It was confirmed that Mr. Rivendell was yet another Seeker victim in the Hunt’s string of mysterious fatalities.

His wife spoke to the Daily Gazette, saying, “I just cannot imagine him being so careless, he was a smart and safe hiker. He’s been hiking for years. I can’t imagine why he would be so far off of the main trails, even at the risk of discovering the treasure of the gods. He would know better. This doesn’t make any sense.”

Though the death appears to have been an accident, the discovery remains under investigation.

 

 

Chapter 13 – Iona

“In the beginning of our new world, after the fall of ancient man, the gods walked among us. In the Temple, in the city, in the mountains. They communed with man, blessed us with their presence. Until man grew greedy. Our modern ancestors wanted to be like the gods, wanted their power. So the gods retreated into the mountains, seen less and less frequently among men, until they disappeared forever. It is man’s fault the gods have left us. Man is, by nature, evil.” The High Overseer’s words ring in my head. I’ve heard this story more times than I can count, and it troubles my heart every time. What would it have been like to commune with the gods? To know them personally? To live in a world where man coexists with those who are holy?

Standing here, at the Tower of the Gods – said to be one of the gods’ most beloved havens, I get a sense of what it could have been like. This as probably as close as I’ll ever get to commune with the gods – the ground on which I stand feels consecrated, holding something supernatural and mysterious. Thank you, holy gods, for allowing me to experience the splendor of this place. I wish my mother could be here to see it, she would love it.

I swallow down the guilt that rises in my throat at the thought of her. Yes, I am here for her. To help her. To find the gods’ treasure so that we can buy the medicine she so desperately needs. But I have also abandoned her. Left her alone, in our small apartment. Wondering whether I’m all right, if I’ve made any progress, when –or if– I will come home.

I will come home.

She will be fine, I tell myself for the thousandth time today. She will be fine right now, because our friendly neighbors in the apartment complex assured me that they would take turns visiting with her, staying as long as she liked, cooking her what little food we can afford. She is being taken care of. It’s the idea that I’m not the one taking care of her that bothers me. And she will be fine after I return home, because she will have the medicine. She will finally be healed. It’s the will of the gods, isn’t it? Surely they will heal her?

But I can’t think about that now. I have to remain focused. For her. We’ve been searching for hours, rummaging through bush and rock and stone and tree. Kalliope, Ronan and I took off to the south of the Tower, Matteo and Jagger to the north.  The light is beginning to fade, and my body beginning to tire. So far we have turned up nothing, not so much as even a clue. Not that any of us know exactly what we’re looking for – a pattern of gold dust flecks impressed in the mountainside? A stray nugget of gold? A mysterious message on a rock, leaving clues as to where to search? And, if any clues do exist, would past Seekers not have discovered them after so many years of hunting?

As disheartening as these thoughts are, I refuse to be discouraged. The treasure is out there. It has to be. All these years of legend can’t be wrong. I will find the treasure. I will see my mother again. I will get her that medicine. She will get better. Because I will make these things happen. The gods are on my side.

Out of the corner of my eye I spy Ronan still stealing glances over his shoulder. Part of me feels sorry for him; falling into the river seems to have shaken him quite a bit. And since I saw that mysterious man in the forest that day, Ronan’s claims that someone threw a rock that hit him and caused him to fall don’t seem that outlandish. Alternatively, as he’s been nothing short of brutish to the rest of us, the other part of me would really like to kick him in the shins. Hard.

“Ronan, for the hundredth time there’s nothing out there. Can we please keep moving?” Kalliope says.

“Kalliope, I told you someone threw that rock at me, I don’t owe you any more explanation. And I’m going as fast as I can, all right?”

“Just try not to hold us back, okay? You’re never going to help us find anything if you’re busy checking over your shoulder and behind your back every five steps. If you’re going to skulk around and not contribute, we’ll happily leave you here and do it ourselves.”

“No!” He exclaims, then coughs in a show of mock casualness. “Uh…no. I’m obviously helping, you’re just too stupid and self-involved to notice.”

Kalliope rolls her eyes. “Nice, Ronan. Really nice.”

“Look, I’m fine, I just thought I heard a noise,” he shoots back defensively.

I can’t decide whether to roll my eyes inwardly at his sudden cowardice, or feel sorry for him. I know how he feels, but…it’s Ronan. I have trouble feeling sympathy toward him.

Kalliope shoots me a devilish smirk, and says, “Uh oh, looks like somebody is scared of being out in the woods.”

“Shut up, I am not.” He launches a clod of dirt in her direction.

“Guys, stop it. This isn’t getting us anywhere. Ronan, there’s nothing out in the woods. At least nothing that’s bothering us right now. So let’s please, for the sake of the treasure, get back to work.” I am pleasantly surprised at the authority in my voice.

Moving away from the still bickering pair, I make my way over to a new area ripe for exploration. A long and streamlined boulder shoots out two feet above the ground, propped up on one side by a second, smaller boulder, and on the other side by the slope of the mountain ground. It looks as though a small opening might be concealed by the heavy heather and brush. Spotting a thick, heavy stick on the ground, I lean to grab it. It’s about four feet long, and several inches thick. I test its weight in my hands –solid but still lithe and perfectly agile– and begin using it to move bushes aside as I poke and loot around the bushes.

As I get closer I find I was right, the bushes are in fact hiding a small opening beneath the overhanging rock structure. Prodding deeper into the shrubbery, a spider, much too large for my liking, comes scurrying out. The eight-legged beast crosses the toe of my boot in its desperation to escape my destruction. I squeal instinctively, shaking my foot in a blind panic to free myself of the monster.

“Iona? Are you okay?” Kalliope calls from her position ten yards away.

Mentally chastising myself for such silliness, I shout back “Yeah, it was just a spider. Scared me, is all. I’m fine!”
I’m almost positive I hear Ronan snort in derision. Sure enough, I faintly hear Kalliope say “Shut up, jerk, don’t laugh at her,” as I again get my breathing under control.

A little spider can’t hurt you, you’ve got to keep going, I tell myself. I pick up my new stick from the ground – I must’ve dropped it in my panic. A few more deep breaths and I begin clearing the entrance to the enclosure under the rock.

If I were hiding something of value, or a clue to something of the same secretive nature, I would no doubt choose a place like this. Extremely private and concealed in a way that looks completely natural, but near enough to such a large landmark that I could find it easily. A tingle of excitement fizzes in my belly as I draw closer to the opening. Clearing out the entrance, I kneel down to inspect the area. The rock face looks natural enough, no man-made markings as far as I can tell. The large and small rocks, along with the mountain’s sloping ground, form an awkward and angular mouth no wider than 18 inches at its widest part. Just big enough for someone small of frame to slide into the rocky enclosure…

Resting my right palm on the belly of the overhanging rock, I find it cool to the touch. It sends a pleasant pulse of cold throughout my body. Pressing upward tentatively at first, then with more force, I determine the rock is solidly in place; not likely to collapse on top of me. Withdrawing my hand, I flatten my body until I am flush against the ground, laying on my stomach, and inch my way into the small, dark opening. Peering up and all around, the mouth deepens into a still small, but larger than expected pit. I scoot further in, thankful that for once my slight build is working in my favor. As my eyes adjust to the darkness, I force myself to ignore all thoughts of the spider from earlier. I certainly hope it doesn’t have any arachnid friends lurking in the gloom here.

My head is all the way in the small space and I can finally begin to see what’s inside. Natural creases where land meets rock, a floor mixed of stone and soil and sadly, no signs of treasure. Suddenly, comes a sound from somewhere in the enclosure’s dark depths that fills my entire being with dread: the telltale rattling of the infamous shaking mountain snake. Tails adorned with a terrifying warning instrument, the poisonous snakes are known to make their way into the city, invading any available dark and private space. It appears that I have inadvertently stumbled into one’s burrow, and from the sound of its shaking tail warning me away, it isn’t happy I’m here.

Scrambling back out before the beast can strike, I bump my head –hard– on the overhanging rock. Pushing myself up onto my feet, I rub the spot as an instant headache seizes my head. Ow. But my vision doesn’t blur, and at least I escaped a poisonous snake bite. Thank the gods for that.

I’m rubbing my still sore scalp and moving back toward the others when I hear the panic rising in Kalliope’s voice. “Oh my gods.”

That can’t be good. If she’d found something that looked like it related to treasure, that would have been a happy squeal. I close the distance between us and follow the visual path marked by her outstretched arm. I am scared to look, but I do anyway. Then instantly wish I hadn’t.

Broken into jagged pieces, white color stained and smudged by dirt and earth, a collection of thin, shattered shapes scatter the forest ground.

Bones.

And from the looks of their size and width, human.

My heart catches in my throat, frozen by shock and horror.

The one closest to me holds my thoughts captive. Bumpy knobs on either end remind me of the femur – the strong bone in a human thigh – that I learned about in my biology textbooks. It is broken into two even halves, a clean, precise, almost surgeon-like break between them. How long have these bones been here? Who did they belong to? What happened to that person? Does The Order know they’re here? No, they can’t. Because if they knew, they would have done something about it. Identified the person to whom the bones belonged, given them a proper burial, anything. They can’t know about these bones.

I take a deep breath and swallow the bitter-tasting bile rising in the back of my throat. I look over at Ronan, who’s face is completely drained of color. His face says everything I feel. I try to summon that determination I was so confident in just minutes ago.

I swallow, hard. “Well, there’s nothing we can do for…whoever that was…right now. We’ll alert the Checkpoint staff when we arrive later. For now, let’s try to keep looking.” By some miracle, I manage to hide the panic I feel inside and mask my voice with peace and calm.

We continue searching, but after an hour have turned up nothing. What a day this has been. Tomorrow will be better, I tell myself, willing it to be true.

***

The walls of the entrance to Checkpoint #13, like all the others, are lined with photos. Hundreds of them. It’s yet another Hall of the Departed; it would appear that these images haunt every checkpoint. Photos of those who have lost their lives, or gone missing, in search of the treasure. Lost to The Hunt. Their faces haunt the wall, staring down at us in grave, silent warning as we enter the compound. I offer up a short prayer to the gods on these lost souls’ behalf. An Order operative is hanging a new picture as we enter, a pretty brunette girl. Very young. No older than 16, it would appear. My heart aches for her, for the family she undoubtedly left behind. I shudder thinking of the bones near the Tower of the Gods, how ominous they were in hindsight. Gods, bless her soul.

Anna, right-hand woman and primary advisor to his holiness the High Overseer, greets us each by name as we pass through the Hall of the Departed. She says nothing of the new photo being added to the ghostly wall. How did she know we would be here? She must make the rounds to the different checkpoints on a daily basis. Probably uses one of The Order’s high-tech helicopters. Ronan tells her of our discovery of bones near the Tower of the Gods, although in his version it is him who uncovered the fragments and bravely comforted Kalliope and me, as we grew devastatingly distraught upon seeing them. Yeah, right. But Anna listens attentively, a worried expression twisting her pretty face, and quickly calls in a member of her staff to record the details. She assures us that our discovery will be investigated and dealt with, with appropriate action. I wonder what “appropriate action” means.

We don’t talk much over our dinner of chicken and rice. It’s delicious, just like all the other food we’ve had on The Hunt so far. The Order must employ the most talented chefs in the city, I’ve never seen such elaborate meals in my life. Despite the unsettled feeling that still haunts my gut from the grisly discovery of bones earlier today, every bite of food is so delicious that I cannot stop myself. After two plates of tonight’s chicken and rice, and three servings of the warm, crusty, steaming hot bread smeared with soft, salty butter, my belly has reached capacity, and I push the plate away.

Back in the dormitory, we all lay quietly on our beds. When we returned to our designated meeting place near the Tower earlier, Kalliope, Ronan and I told Matteo and Jagger of our gruesome discovery, along with our lack of much other discovery.

“You’re sure they were human?” Jagger asked.

I nodded solemnly and opened my mouth to answer, but Ronan interrupted and said, “Obviously idiot, what else could they be?”

Ignoring this interjection, I looked Jagger square in the eye and said, “They were the right size and length, and looked awfully a lot like the ones we all probably studied as kids in school.”

Matteo only shook his head in disbelief.

As I lay in my bunk, I blush a little at the memory of Jagger’s concern when he learned of my exploration in the small rock enclosure. His eyes widened when I mentioned the spider, his jaw dropped when I told him of the shaking snake and his hand closed on my shoulder in a gesture of concern when I told him I’d hit my head. “Are you okay?” He’d asked. When I nodded yes, he only stepped closer in and asked again, “You’re sure? You don’t have to be so brave all the time, you know. Are you sure you don’t have a concussion?” I told him no, I was sure that I was quite fine, and broke from his grasp before my blushing cheeks could betray me. Now I miss it now as I lay alone on my cold bed.

It turned out that Jagger and Matteo hadn’t had much luck near the Tower of the Gods either. “Oh we found something all right,” Matteo said, piquing the group’s interest. But then he continued and said, “A whole lot of nothing.” We shared a collective groan of disappointment. So much work for so little reward.

Though no one says it, I know we’re all laying here thinking about the bones. I wonder what The Order is doing with them, who they are notifying. One thought prevails in the silence: if, gods forbid, I am to die out here in these mountains, will my fate mirror that of the bones’ unfortunate owner? Lost somewhere in this cursed rocky expanse, with no one knowing –or caring– that I’m dead? It’s too terrible an idea. I can’t think that way.

“Guys, I’ve got a great idea,” Kalliope whispers into the silence. “We could all use a little morale boost, right?”

Her question is met with a few unenthusiastic grunts and one “I guess you could say that” from Matteo.

“I’ll take that as a yes, and I’ve got just the thing: let’s raid the kitchen for s’mores ingredients and make a campfire outside!” When no one immediately answers, she goes on. “Come on, today was tough and I’m sick of this grave tension. We need something to lighten the mood, even if just for tonight. What do you say?”

I’m embarrassed to ask, and am grateful when Matteo does for me. “That sounds great, but…what’s a s’more?”

I can hear Kalliope’s sharp inhale of surprise from three cots away. “Are you serious?”

“My family doesn’t have a lot of money, not a lot of room for extra expenditures like that,” Matteo answers simply. I know how he feels.

“Oh,” Kalliope says quietly. Then, “Well trust me. You’ll like them. I’ll be right back.” And then, steps light as a feather, she tiptoes out of the quiet dormitory and disappears down the hall. Minutes later she returns, triumphantly wielding marshmallows, some sort of cracker, and – oh gods, yes – it’s chocolate.

I’ve only had chocolate twice in my life, once for my birthday when I was very young, and the second time being when my mother’s illness was first reported by the doctor to be in remission. Of course we had to celebrate. I love the stuff, but it is a luxury that Mother and I usually cannot afford.

“Follow me,” she whispers, motioning for Ronan, Matteo, Jagger and I to rise from our beds and join her. We do, without question. We make sure to scan the hallways for staff members, but it’s late and everyone seems to have gone to bed. Though none of us say it, this compound doesn’t feel like the kind to let its inhabitants freely come and go. Four dark hallways, one dining room and one entryway later, we’re out the doors, enveloped by the cold night air. We creep into the dark woods until we’re a safe distance from Checkpoint #13 that we won’t be discovered. Jagger sets to work gathering twigs and loose branches, and in minutes has a bed of hot coals smoldering.

I try not to notice that he looks even more handsome in the warm glow of the fire, and then catch him and Kalliope exchange congratulatory smiles. The jealousy I feel rise in my chest catches me completely off guard. That was nothing, I tell myself, they can’t smile at each other? That’s stupid of you, Iona. He isn’t yours. But logic aside, the sight of them grinning at each other is deeply unsettling.

I redirect my attention to the night. It’s dark as midnight out, and there’s a chill in the air that drives me deeper into my jacket, but I’m too distracted by the moon’s sparkling reflection on the forest floor to care about the cold. The five of us sit together around the blazing fire, underneath a blanket of thousands of shimmering stars, and for the first time since I volunteered to become a Seeker, I forget about the Hunt. I forget about my mother, forget about the aching muscles in my body, forget about the seemingly endless threat of danger from some unknown source, forget about everything. I let it all go. In this moment, I am free.

Kalliope teaches us to spear marshmallows onto sticks and roast them over the flames, and build the miniature sandwiches of chocolate and sweetness. With melted chocolate dripping down my chin, I thank the gods for this moment. Here, in the woods, we are limitless, infinite in the crisp night air. We are the kings and the queens, and the forest is ours alone.

As is the Hunt.

Jagger’s eyes capture mine as the flames lick upwards between us, pulling me from my quiet thoughts. For several long moments we simply stare at each other. Gods he is handsome. But sad, too, and mysterious. What sorrow is hiding behind those dark, ruminating eyes?

I can’t let myself be distracted by him. I have to stay focused, for my mother’s sake. I’m not going to find the treasure if I’m busy staring mindlessly at a man I hardly know. I tear my eyes from his, and a full, deep breath that I didn’t know I’d been holding in escapes my lips.

But I can’t stop myself – minutes later I steal another furtive glance in his direction. I’m shocked to find him sitting there, still smiling softly at me. A pleasant tingle runs down the length of my body, his smile warming me to my core in a way that no fire ever could.

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