On Mountain High – Chapter Three

Miss Chapters 1 and 2? Catch up here and here.

 

Chapter 3 – Matteo

“The Seekers.”

My new title booms over the loudspeakers, echoing hollowly off the walls that form the Temple’s main square. The words land heavily on my ears. The High Overseer stands at the podium, arms raised gallantly skyward. I can’t tell whether it is a gesture meant as a sign of reverence and worship, or one to denote his own power. The latter, I suspect.

Stealing quick and careful glances, I analyze the eight strangers who stand with me on the Temple steps. The Overseer is saying something about the significance of The Hunt, rambling on about the will of the gods and something about destiny, but I’ve stopped listening.

My twin brother Matthias would say that I should be sizing up my competition, coming up with some a strategy, and I really am trying. Uneasy energy swarms within, and I try to think like a competitor. No, like a victor. But I’m the more timid, intellectual half of our union, true and true. Competition was always Matthias’ game. Allowing myself only the briefest of moments to weigh my lifelong lack of competitive instinct against the situation into which I voluntarily stepped, I smirk at the irony.

I wonder what they’re thinking now, my family. Of our family, I am probably the last anyone would suspect to volunteer as Seeker. Matthias would be the first. My fraternal twin brother, born seven minutes before me, is physically strong, tall for our age – 17, mentally sharp and usually the first to volunteer for anything. Except for the Hunt. He is the brawn to my brain, almost a carbon copy of our father. As fraternal twins go, we couldn’t be more different. Father would probably be the next most likely to volunteer for the Hunt, and he would be rather well prepared given his muscular physique and job as a geologist and land developer for The Order’s division of development. My mother and I, similar both physically and in personality, would probably tie for the least likely hopefuls. Her selflessness and compassion for others would mark her an easy competitor to defeat in the mountains, while I fear my sarcastic tendencies might render me an unwitting enemy. I’m going to have to keep my mouth shut if I want to form any alliances.

I wish I could have told my family what I was planning without them trying to talk me out of it. I hope they see that this is for them. Gods, if I could find the treasure it would change everything for us. For the rest of all our lives, and our children’s lives, and their children after them. You never earn the reward without accepting at least a little risk, right?

I whisper the simple prayer of protection I was taught as a child. “Your will be done, your protection be granted.” I am skeptical of the prayer’s dependability, but hell it can’t hurt.

Refocusing my attention on the Overseer’s lecture, I find that he’s reminding the city of the gods’ holy decrees. As if we need reminding – they’re posted everywhere in the city and recite them by rote like mindless sheep every week at the Temple.

Decree Number One: honor the gods.

Decree Number Two: respect The Order of the Departed.

And Decree Number Three: treat fellow citizens as you would have them treat you.

I speak the words in autonomous unison with the several hundred thousand other voices, and decide to see what –or who– I’m up against. Turning to my left, I subtly study the blonde girl standing beside me. She is about as tall as I am, and looks to be similar in age – no older than 18, I’d guess. She wears plain clothing, though it is much nicer than my own. Her pants are a solid shade of black, a rich, un-faded color that can only be brand-new. Unlike the four shirts I call my own, I don’t notice any fraying in the hem of the unfamiliar but expensive-looking fabric that drapes her slender torso. Her face looks like it could be pretty, and I strain forward in an attempt to take in more than just her profile. Her lips are a soft pink color, shiny, straight blonde hair is tied back in a ponytail that falls just below her shoulders, and a few freckles dot her naturally flushed cheeks. All of a sudden her head turns, and her sharp green eyes capture my brown ones. She holds my gaze relentlessly for several seconds, and I am fully entranced. She studies me hard, then the tiniest hint of a smile forms on her glossy lips as she tucks a stray lock of hair behind one ear.

Pretty. Definitely pretty.

I smile back a little, trying to play it cool before I redirect my gaze back to the podium where the Overseer is still talking.

To the right stands a monster of a young man. His face is hard-set, but free of wrinkles, and though I decide he can’t be any older than me, he’s certainly much bigger. He’s huge, more bear than man. The swollen muscles in his arms and back pull his gray t-shirt taut, and his hair is cut so closely to his scalp that I can see a dark, bulbous mole behind his ear. His eyebrows are drawn in angrily, his face frozen in a daunting grimace. I avert my eyes; something tells me that I don’t want to get caught staring at this guy.

Further down the line stands another girl, smaller, with brown hair cascading down to the middle of her back in loose waves. Her clothes look well-worn, like my own. She stands proudly, though, shoulders back and eyes fixed straight ahead. Determined. I notice that her face looks sullen and tired, like she hasn’t slept for days. Maybe she hasn’t.

Further down the line stand two more girls and a tall man. Glancing left again, my eyes land on a short, wide-set kid. There’s no way he’s a day older than 13, and for a moment I am worried about him. This is way too dangerous for someone so young. And then I remember that this was his choice; he chose to volunteer, just like I did. Just like the rest of these people. It is not my place to interfere. I’m relieved when the guy at the far left end of the bunch appears to be at least in his early twenties. He looks to be about my age. His angular jaw is clenched so tightly it looks as if it could crack rocks, and he stares hollowly forward, gaze fixed on some far-away place.

“They’re going to die! You’re going to be killed, they’re going to kill you!” The shout erupts from somewhere toward the back of the gathered crowd, piercing the reverent quiet like a bullet through flesh. A maniacal cackling follows the cry, and I make out the faint sound of glass shattering. “Gods, save them! Save them! Save us all!” The haunting cry is swallowed by a sea of nervous laughter, then tense silence, but not before a chill snakes its way down my spine.

I turn to see where the chilling words came from, and I spot a place where the crowd has parted, and stares inward toward something – or someone. I make out the tangled mess of dark hair, the dirt-smeared clothes and what’s left of a liquor bottle in the hand of the figure on the ground. The silence weighs heavy in the crowded square.

Old Sam. Notorious survivor of the Hunt and legendary alcoholic. I met him once, on the street many years ago. He was drunk then, too. I’m sure he didn’t remember our conversation minutes later, let alone after a full day, but the words he spoke that day slither like ominous serpents in my mind. Shut up, Sam, shut up. But my silent commands are for naught; my stomach tightens as I see The Order’s street police making their way toward him. This kind of disruption will not be easily forgiven.

“They tried to kill Old Sam, they did. They tried to take me!” His laughter grows more and more shrill as the officers approach him. He points a wavering finger at them. “You can’t hurt me, The Hunt couldn’t hurt me, nobody can hurt me! Not me, not Old Sam. Gods, help them! Go ahead and search ‘til the end of your days, kiddies…’til the end of your days…” His final words linger hauntingly in the air as the police approach. They quickly make a wall of their bodies so the crowd cannot see past. I see one officer raise his arm, holding his broad street club, and swiftly bring it down. A horrible cracking thud echoes through the crowd. No one speaks, no one moves. I don’t even think anyone breathes.

The entire episode is over as quickly as it unfolded. Two officers grab either arm and begin to drag Old Sam’s limp body away, and the crowd turns back toward the Overseer at the podium. No one dares utter any words of protest. It would be defiance of the second Decree: Respect The Order. Disobedience of any of the Decrees is punishable by death. So hundreds of thousands of mouths remain dutifully shut.

I instantly remember why it’s so important that I find the treasure. So my family can escape this place.

Our venerated High Overseer shows no sign of emotion or reaction. Inhaling deeply, he continues as if his speech had never been interrupted. “And now, let us close in prayer. Thank you ever-present gods for your kindness and mercy. We ask that you grant these nine your strength, your wisdom and your perseverance in the difficult trials that lay ahead. Though we know not your divine plan, we walk confidently with you into our destinies.”

A uniform murmur of “Praise be to the gods and to His Holiness, our High Overseer” rises from the crowd, but I remain silent. I see the Overseer gesture for us to follow him, and I turn to follow. Before I do, I take one last look out at the throng of people standing behind me. Some look at me with approval, some with encouragement, and some with – worst of all – pity. Stop it, I think with disdain toward the people eyeing our small group with concern and sorrow. They don’t know me at all.

I spot my parents and Matthias all standing still as statues of the gods in the place where I left them. I wave, and they wave back solemnly. “I love you, Matteo. No matter what happens, I love you.” My mother shouts over the crowd. I wave and swallow hard, trying to dislodge the lump from my throat. I freeze their faces in my mind, to remember later. This is for them. I’m doing this for them. I’m going to find the gods’ lost treasure and we’re going to escape from this place to a better life somewhere. This is for them. But the thoughts only encourage the lump to grow larger. I allow my footsteps to fall in line with the other Seekers as we make our way into the Temple.

 

***

 

The tallest structure in our city, the Temple is a stern, grim building. Its position as an austere sentry amid a backdrop of the mountains’ explosion of color has always felt rather ironic to me. The gray cement walls are unmarked, plain and drab and right now it feels more daunting than welcoming. It is one of the only new buildings in our city, and it’s pretty obvious that artful architectural design was not something its builders took into consideration. We are taught that vanity is immoral, and therefore reject unnecessary extravagance as a community. It makes sense that the gods’ earthly dwelling place would be unembellished, though if I were a god I think I’d rather spend my time somewhere more welcoming.

Inside, the main sanctuary is an enormous cavern of a room void of windows or natural light. Fluorescent lighting casts a chill of severity upon the chamber. Aside from the well worn benches where civilians sit, the sanctuary’s only adornments are large shards of brightly colored glass sit on the floor, leaning against the inside walls. Stained glass, my grandmother used to call them. She said they used to dwell inside the walls of holy places reflecting the rays of sunshine in vibrant glory. They filter no sunshine now, but they’re still beautiful. I always liked to look at them as a kid. But they are fragile and irreplaceable, so I was never allowed to get too close. Now their vibrant colors seem veiled under a dull gray haze, and they stare back somberly at us as we are led through the Temple’s vast sanctuary.

In the far end of the titanic room, the redheaded woman from the ceremony, who I decide must be a high-ranking operative within The Order, leads the way. We follow her like schoolchildren around a corner, and descend down a flight of stairs behind the wall of the unassuming platform, where the Overseer delivers his sermons so many times each week. I’ve never noticed this staircase before, it’s almost concealed back here. Does The Order have something to hide down here? I want to see the faces of the other Seekers to gauge whether they’re as surprised as I am, but in our single-file line all I can see is the head of the boy in front of me.

I reach the bottom of the stairs and see that we’ve arrived in a dimly lit passageway underground. The place is built into the base of one of the Whispering Mountains’ smaller, outlying peaks, and being in this unknown, underground floor feels no different than being in the Pearl, the community center. Trying in vain to ignore my ever-present nerves, I focus my attention on making sense of my new surroundings. The floor is a utilitarian cement, poured over what is certainly dirt and rock beneath – some part of me finds it hard to believe that The Order of the Departed didn’t spring for nicer digs. The walls are formed of rock, and I gingerly run my finger along their rough surface. Small flecks of dirt and microscopic limestone crumble into my hand as I pull it away, adding yet another stain to my well-worn pants as I wipe my palm across my thigh. The unadorned lantern lights illuminating the long hallway flicker, and I wonder just where the woman is leading us in this secret subterranean world. No one says anything, we continue down the hallway in a burdensome silence. We pass several doorways as we walk, spaced roughly half a city block apart from each other and all decidedly closed.

The hallway seems to have no end in sight. Gods, is this some cruel joke? Is this the Hunt? Just one long hike down a dimly lit hallway amid myriad questions and uncertainties? Glad I decided to risk my life for something so exciting.

After several minutes of walking I make out the slender shadow of a door slightly ajar off the hallway, and for the most infinitesimal of moments, steal a peak inside. The room concealed behind the heavy wooden entry is enormous, bigger than the entire apartment my family of four shares. An elaborate bed stands in the center of the room, four tall wooden columns shooting upward from every corner. Ornate fabrics drape the bed’s lower half as well as the room’s walls, and rich carpets adorn the floor. The colors are more vibrant than any I’ve ever seen: blazing orange, fiery red, shimmering gold, tranquil emerald and deep violet. Candles flicker vibrantly, illuminating the entirety of the room’s luster.

On top of the draperies, the walls are lined with stunning paintings of the gods – oil, it looks like. Impossibly expensive. These paintings aren’t any of the popular poses I’ve ever seen before. The Warrior crouches in a scene of battle, face smeared with blood and eyes dark with intensity. His head is illuminated by a subtle glowing aura, too literal an illustration of his holiness but somehow still breathtaking. Beside him, the Matron cradles a sick newborn babe, silencing its cries with her gentle kindness. On the opposite wall the Benefactor distributes loaves of bread to a hungry crowd, so fresh and hot the artist painted the steam rising from their crusts. Finally, beside the Benefactor is the Hunter, pictured atop what must be a peak in the Whispering Mountains – the Holy Peak, no doubt – standing strong with arms crossed fiercely over chest. A mat for prayer lies aside a small but opulent alter table. Who is this magnificent room for? A dazzling display from the pious hypocrites, certainly.

The bear-like young man slams into my backside, jolting me from my inconspicuous study. “Move it, idiot,” he snarls.

I curse, then swallow the many acerbic comments rising like bile in my throat and begrudgingly mutter a simple, “Sorry.” Ignoring the animalistic grunt from the gentleman behind me, I fall back into place in the line as we continue our march down the never-ending hallway.

Finally we reach what appears to be our destination, a large, plain rectangular room filled with couches and chairs on one end, and a round table at the other that looks big enough to accommodate about 20 people. This room is nowhere near as opulently decorated as the room we passed in the hallway, but I’m sure no one else realizes. It is then that I notice the numerous doors lining the room’s far wall. They look too small, too close together to be any sizeable room of use. Closets, perhaps? The Order must have a lot of skeletons to hide to have need of so many closets.

“Welcome to your home for the night, brave Seekers,” our fearless red-headed leader’s voice cuts across the silence, bringing me back from my thoughts. “Please make yourselves comfortable, you will find private sleeping quarters behind each of the doors along the wall.” She gestures to the doors which I now know do not in fact conceal skeletons, be they literal or figurative. Nothing but boring beds.

“I trust you shall make yourselves comfortable. The showers are located at the back of the dormitory for your convenience,” for the briefest of moments, I swear I see the woman’s eyes fall on my stained pants and dirt-crusted shoes, then quickly rove over the other similarly-dressed Seekers. But she composes herself as quickly as she lapsed, painting a lovely smile across her pale face. “My name is Anna and I am pleased to assist you with anything you might need. Please take this time to settle into your quarters, dinner and orientation will begin shortly.” Then Anna swiftly excuses herself from the room.

The nine of us stand there silently for a brief moment, then some take a tentative seat on the couches. Others begin to slowly move about the room, exploring its contents. I wander over to a door and open it to find a dark, small room containing an even smaller bed. Despite its small size, the bed is nicer than mine at home. I check several doors, and am pleased to find that none of the mattresses show any exposed springs. Yes, an improvement indeed.

Closing the door, I wander back into the main room and make it a point to sink my un-showered body into one of the plush, pristine couches. Remembering the consternation in Anna’s eyes as she studied my filth-covered boots, I quickly rub one along the bottom of the couch. No one sees, but I feel much better for it. I allow my body to fall backward into the billowy embrace of pillows, and my eyes flutter closed in a moment of utter relaxation. I can worry about the dangers of the Hunt, about my family, about competing with these strangers later. My tranquility is over as quickly as it began; I feel a weight sink next to me, and force my eyes open again.

And I am glad that I did. The striking blonde from the Temple steps sits next to me, extending her hand. Through a friendly smile, she says, “Hi. I’m Kalliope.”

“Matteo,” I match her smile with one of my own. And then suddenly I am at a loss for words; my usually hyperactive brain falls silent. She nods appreciatively, and we fall into a silence rife with electric energy. Until, that is, the silence goes on for more than a few moments and I realize the moments are becoming too long. I blurt out the first thing that comes to mind. “Did you ever know that this place exists? This underground floor, I mean?”

She smiles, eyes full of mirth, and says, “I did, actually.” Seeing my shocked expression, she goes on, gracefully saving me from more awkward exclaims. “I’m a reporter, I work for the Daily Gazette so I’ve picked up on a secret or two.”

“Ohhh.” I say knowingly, though I don’t know at all. What secrets? “Cool job. But aren’t you a little young to be a reporter?” Most people who work for the Daily Gazette are older, cranky and wrinkled and set in their ways. I see them shuffling around their office in the Pearl when I go to pick up groceries for my family.

She smiles brightly. “Well, technically I’m an intern, but I will be a reporter, someday. A damn good one, too. You can quote me.” She flashes another toothy smile and she goes on. “So what brings you here? Or do you make a habit of volunteering for situations of reckless endangerment?”

“Well it was kind of a last minute decision,” I lie. “I thought ‘Hey, life-threatening mountain climbing, unpredictable natural elements and a potentially-cursed hidden treasure? Who wouldn’t want a piece of that action?’” She laughs, and I am set at ease.

From the corner of my eye the tired-looking girl with wavy brown hair approaches, and we three make our shy introductions. Iona, she tells us. We chatter congenially for several minutes before a harsh voice calls out, interrupting our conversation. “Well, well, well. Looks like we’ve got the first alliance of the Hunt. How do you girls know each other?”

My skin bristles and I turn, only to come face to face with the bear man from the hallway. He sneers down his nose at me, emphasizing the word “girls.”

“Good one,” I say sardonically with a lazy raise of my eyebrow. Studying him, I find that he’s even bigger close up. An angry vein bulges out from his neck, pulsing with every beat. I follow it down and take in his garish biceps, barrel chest and monumental thighs, no doubt as wide around as my entire torso. This guy is nothing but a single, brainless muscle.

Bear, as I decide to call him, is just opening his mouth to deliver yet another inevitably devastating insult when Iona politely interrupts, “Well, my name is Iona, this is Matteo and that’s Kalliope.” She smiles kindly. “I’m sorry, I didn’t seem to catch your name?”

“That’s because I didn’t give it,” the bulky young man snaps. “I just wanted to stop by and let you know that you’re wasting your time here. If the curse doesn’t take you out, I will.”

Mr. Congeniality over here.

And then a fifth, more neutral voice joins the exchange. “Dude, cool it. They’re just trying to make the best out of an uncomfortable situation. No need to be belligerent. Leave them alone.”

My head swings around, not wanting to miss a single second of the fierce pummeling the anonymous speaker is undoubtedly about to receive, and am pleasantly surprised. It’s the guy from the far left end of the Temple steps. He looks about my age, no older than mid twenties, I would guess, and though he isn’t as broad or thick as his aggressor, he’s no waif to be snapped in two. This fight will be a good one, I decide.

Kalliope’s voice cuts coolly into the exchange. “Exactly. No need to get your panties in a wad.”

Before the half-man, half-bear fellow can respond, our new friend introduces himself. “I’m Jagger. It’s nice to meet all of you.” Gesturing to the bear, he adds “And what a great idea; maybe we could form some kind of alliance. Maybe we’d even let you be a part of it, if you can learn to play nice. But we probably need to know your name first.”
His face red, he finally mutters “Ronan,” under his breath.

“Nice to meet you Ronan, you’re such a charmer.” Kalliope’s sardonic reply makes me chuckle, and cough to conceal my laughter. The last thing I need is to make an enemy out of a guy who’s twice my body weight and clearly deranged.

As Ronan stomps away, the four of us exchange knowing glances and then burst into fits of nervous laughter.

“Looks like the grizzly’s more of a panda bear after all,” I snort to a chorus of chuckles.
“So,” Jagger leans conspiratorially into our small group, a smirk snaking across his face, and asks, “Do you guys believe in curses?”

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