Chapter 12 – Kalliope
Gods I wish Ronan would shut up.
He’s in a particularly horrific mood this morning, as friendly as a bear disturbed from its winter hibernation. Not thirty seconds ago he was rudely interrupting Matteo, who’d been detailing the scientific characteristics of the purple flower we know as the Mountain Star, explaining that it was once known as the Columbine, that it had been against the law to pick these flowers. We’d all stopped for a moment to admire the flower, when Ronan grumpily stomped on a collection of the delicate things, trampling their radiant petals and grumbling, “Boooooring. If you could shut up with all the nerd talk, that’d be great. No one cares about that. We’ve got a fortune to find.”
Delightful. Why is he with us, again?
Now he’s spewing more venom, harshly contesting Jagger’s logic that we should search the area near the Tower of the Gods, one of the locations rumored to contain at the minimum useful clues, if not the treasure itself. Ronan agreed to the plan last night in the checkpoint, said that it made sense to investigate the famous claims that the treasure is hidden somewhere in the shadow of the giant rock formation; I guess he changed his mind.
I wish he’d change his mind about his choice of Seeker sub-group to terrorize. “I’m just saying, don’t you think that if the treasure was really buried there, someone would have found it by now?” Ronan’s whiny voice is nails on a chalkboard in this beautiful place.
Suddenly Iona turns around and snaps, “Would you just shut up already? If you have a better idea of where to find the treasure, I’m sure we’d all love to hear it. Otherwise, we are going to search the Tower of the Gods because not only is that where most everyone but you seems to want to go, but you agreed to it last night. So be quiet, or leave.”
My eyes widen and my eyebrows shoot up in shock. From the look of stunned silence on Ronan’s face, I’m not the only one caught off guard. I see Jagger and Matteo exchange conspiratorial grins, and we keep walking, now in peaceful silence. I’m not sure where this new, aggressive side to Iona came from, but I like it. We continue moving, Ronan stealing ahead to sulk privately, no doubt, the rest of us behind and thankfully out of earshot. Matteo pats Iona on the back as we go.
Up ahead in the distance, I hear the thunderous flow of river rapids; the sound grows louder with each step. Navigating my path up and over a fallen tree trunk in the dense forest, I follow Matteo’s trail and turn left into a clearing, and that’s when I see it. Ahead lies a beautiful, rushing river, flowing hurriedly down from the peaks above. I can see through its crystal clear water to its bed of colorful rocks, spanning decoratively across the river’s 25-foot breadth. It looks to be relatively shallow, no more than 18 inches of water. Every so often a large rock juts up above the water’s flow, breaking up the current’s forceful flow and forcing my eyes to readjust to the pattern.
It’s stunning, like a scene from the vast, beautiful collection of antiquated, old world paintings that adorns the walls in The Order of the Departed’s headquarters. Before painting was declared a waste of time that could be better spent serving the gods and The Order, of course. It’s so perfect it’s almost surreal. The clearly defined line of trees, the flat shore leading up to the water on either edge – it’s overwhelmingly beautiful. It’s such a shame that no one outside of the Hunt’s Seekers will ever get to lay eyes on this place.
Abruptly, I grab Iona’s arm. “Do you feel that?” I whisper.
I suddenly feel the unmistakable sensation of eyes on me, from somewhere out in the forest. My hackles raise, the hairs on my arms standing on end, as that same eerie sensation that we are being watched wraps its icy claws around me. Why does this feeling keep coming back?
I subtly scan our surroundings in every direction, looking for … I don’t know what. An animal, a predator, even? Another Seeker? The forest is so dense it’s impossible to see anything, I can’t even see the surrounding mountaintops. In fact, I see nothing but brown tree trunks and green leaves and plants.
“It’s probably nothing, just…” I trail off.
Iona narrows her eyes at me, stepping closer. Her voice is a whisper. “Kalliope, what is it? What did you feel?”
I sigh. “I just felt… Well, I’ve been feeling… gods, this makes me sound insane.” I breathe deeply in, bolstering my courage. “I’ve felt, off and on since we began the Hunt, that we were being watched.”
“You think someone is following us?” Her voice rises, tinged with panic.
“No, no. At least, I’m not sure. It’s just that feeling you get when someone is staring at you. I just felt it again.”
Iona’s eyes grow wide. “I wonder if it’s the man…if it’s…well, you don’t think I’m crazy? You believe me that I saw a man, right?”
“I do. It’s just so spooky out here. Let’s stay close together, okay?” I try to shake the feeling and turn my attention back to the river. Compartmentalizing the ghostly imagined feeling, I summon logic and decide it’s impossible. We’re not being watched, I’m just exhausted from all the physical effort. Whatever Iona saw is probably something different. No one is out here but us.
Jagger’s voice calls me back from my haunted thoughts. “It looks shallow enough that we can safely cross,” he’s saying, with his hand in the water to test the current. “At least from what I can see. Let’s hope it doesn’t drop off to deep water in the middle. The current’s not flowing quickly enough to be too dangerous. As long as we hold onto each other we should be fine.”
Iona and I exchange a solemn look, both agreeing to keep our discussion private. The boys don’t need to know, not yet.
“What happens if one of us falls?” Ronan calls. His voice holds a trace of trepidation; I spot easily it under his false bravado as he aims an exaggerated look in Iona’s direction.
Jagger looks nervously downstream to the spot where the river winds out of sight. There could be any number of dangers waiting: rapids, deeper water, stronger currents, a steep waterfall…
“Don’t,” Jagger says simply, his voice as cold as the unyielding look in his eyes. “I’ll lead the way.”
He reaches out for Iona, the motion almost instinctive, indicating that she should lock arms with him and follow him into the flowing water. She takes his arm with wordless trust and obedience, and determination settles across her pretty face. Iona then turns to me, and, extending her arm, clasps her hand around my own. Our hands lock just below each other’s elbow, as Jagger’s example directed. A small part of me notices the goose bumps that have risen on her arms, too. Turning from her and nodding encouragingly, I lock arms with Matteo, who reaches for Ronan with a begrudging sigh.
I steal a glance downstream, where the current only grows more volatile. Gods we’d better be careful. Wishing for the comfort of my apartment in the city, the soft cushions of my couch and the warmth of my favorite plush blanket, my mind wanders. What happens if one of us gets hurt? Does The Order have medics out here? We’d have to find a way to get to the nearest checkpoint, I suppose. I’m sure someone there could provide the help we need. No, I correct myself. We don’t need help. We –I– can do this. We are –I am– tough. We –I– will be just fine.
Jagger steps carefully into the water, right foot first, followed by his left. He looks back at Iona and nods encouragingly as she takes a first timid step. I’m next, and the instant my foot submerges into the river, cold water floods my hiking boot I want to turn around. But I keep going. Matteo follows me, and Ronan trails behind us into the shallow rapids.
We make our progress, slow but steady. Every step seems to take years, gods. Snails move faster than we do. My mind wanders languidly as we hike, and I find myself wondering what the marine equivalent of a snail would be…algae? Does algae grow in mountainous rivers? Matteo would know. I’ll have to remember to ask him later. If it does, I’m sure it grows faster than we move. I am carefully toeing the footing below, asserting the safety of my next step, when from ahead I hear a sudden splashing noise over the sound of the river. I look and see Jagger’s foot falter, splashing the surface of the water. My heart clenches in my chest. He must have stepped on a loose stone, the very misstep I was just attempting to avoid. He wavers, grasping at the air until his free arm catches a nearby boulder and he steadies himself again. We all pause, catching our breaths.
“Everyone all right?” He calls out.
My heart begins beating again, seeing that he’s okay.
We all shout “Mmm-hmms” and “yeses” over the volume of the rapidly flowing water.
Even more cautiously than before, we restart to transverse the river. Every step I take is tentative, my brain riddled with fear, my stomach heavy with knots and my eyes focused on the water below. I test each footstep with a portion of my weight before fully trusting that portion of riverbed with my foot. We must all be doing the same thing, our progress is slower than honey flowing in a cold mountain winter.
We’ve been in the water for almost 10 whole minutes and Jagger is only about five feet from the far edge of the river when a scream erupts from behind me. I feel Iona’s fingernails dig into the soft, fleshy skin of my arm as we both turn to see Ronan’s arms flail helplessly up in the air as his head slips under the water.
“Ronan!” Jagger yells.
Iona shrieks in terror, the sound nearly shattering my eardrum.
Matteo latches tighter onto me, leaning the other side of his body toward the place where Ronan fell. “Here, grab my hand!” He extends his arm toward Ronan, catching him by the collar. He pulls him up, and Ronan chokes for air, spewing river water from his mouth. He tries to stand, but misjudges the rocks on the river’s bottom and slips again, this time drifting further away from Matteo’s reach.
“Help!” Ronan screams.
Matteo strains against my grasp, reaching farther and farther toward Ronan’s position downstream. “Reach! Come on man, grab my arm!” He hollers at Ronan.
Ronan kicks frantically, sending an angry splash of water downstream. He fights to stand up, only to slip on the treacherous river bottom. By some miracle, he falls upstream and Matteo clasps his free hand around the top of Ronan’s backpack, pulling him back toward the group with a graceful motion full of surprising strength. Ronan’s hands clutch at Matteo’s arm and he pulls himself up slowly and steadies his body. He stands there, finally on solid ground in the middle of the river, dripping wet from head to toe, his chest heaving with effort and relief.
We all stand in silence for a moment, catching our breath together. The river offers no apology, only continues its thunderous flow.
“All right?” Jagger finally calls out, and Iona’s vice grip loosens slightly on my forearm.
Ronan nods a shaky yes, his dark eyes darting around frantically. He is looking for something.
“What is it?” I call. “What are you looking for?”
“I… I felt… someone…” As if he expects this string of incoherent babbling to stand for an answer, Ronan’s voice trails off as he continues rotating his head around, scouring the tree line on the water’s edge.
“You felt? You felt what, Ronan?”
It takes several long seconds before he comes back to us, all nerves and fear, still dripping water off every part of him. Slowly, and all at once, he weaves the short, somewhat paranoid-sounding story of a rock hitting him hard in his back. He swears it came from someplace on the land. Struck him square on his spine – it made him lose his footing and fall. Surely enough, he turns and raises his shirttail, revealing a large red welt in the center of his back, trickling a small trail of blood down. A tall tale, I suspect. Of course he wouldn’t have simply fallen, he’s much too strong and powerful to succumb to such an accident.
Matteo catches my gaze, eyes alight with sardonic skepticism. I roll mine in reply.
“Is it possible that what you felt was simply a rock colliding with your back when you fell into the water? The riverbed is full of them, both jagged and smooth,” Jagger asks, voice flat.
“Are you serious? Gods, no. Someone threw a rock, it hit me and that’s why I fell.”
“But who, Ronan, who? Look around, there’s no one there.”
“I don’t know, that’s what I was looking for,” Ronan’s voice is shrill, rising in both volume and desperation.
It’s impossible. He’s imagining things. He has to be.
Just like I am.
There is nothing out here, and curses aren’t real. I repeat the words like a silent mantra.
With Ronan still muttering about his alleged “attack,” I swallow down the paranoia rising in my own mind, calling back to memory that all-too-recent and eerie feeling I had of watchful eyes on my back just minutes before crossing the river. We again all lock arms and continue the final trek across the rest of the river. As though propelled by some supernatural force, we finish crossing with incredible speed, greedy to welcome the safety of dry land. We cling desperately to each other, finally collapsing onto the far riverbank.
The five of us are silent for several long minutes, Jagger balancing his hands on his knees on a tree stump, Matteo kneeling by the water’s edge, Ronan as far away from the water as possible and Iona and me on the ground.
Ronan’s voice cuts through my thoughts. “Thanks,” he says gruffly in Matteo’s direction.
Matteo nods in acknowledgement.
“But I’m serious, I was attacked. And you guys don’t believe me.”
Rising from his position on the tree stump, Jagger wipes his palms on his pants and quietly says, “Let’s keep moving.”
I pat Matteo’s arm and say, loud enough for only the two of us to hear, “You could’ve just let him drown, you know.”
A wicked smile makes its way across his face. I smile back and we set off behind the rest of the group. After several hours of exhausting hiking, climbing over fallen tree trunks, squeezing through tight rock formations and encountering a spider that was much too large for my liking, we finally reach a clearing in the forest and spot the Tower of the Gods in the distance. Trying to conceal how horribly out of breath and physically fatigued I am, I take in the surreal beauty of this place.
It looks just like the pictures I’ve seen, but it’s vastly more impressive in person. The dark pinkish red rock looms four hundred feet in the air, dwarfing the less tall, thin rock formations flanking its sides in every direction. Its earth red clay color juxtaposes the cool blue sky – the exquisite scene takes my breath away. Pine and aspen trees stand guard dutifully at its base, austere sentries giving a daunting first impression. I wish I had a camera to capture this image, the gods’ artwork come to life.
I don’t ever want to forget anything about this stunning place.
As we near the Tower, a haunting sense of kismet settles over me, follows on every footstep. We are entering an enchanted – a forbidden – lair, it seems. Perhaps the gods really do reside here, their spirits at least. But it does not feel like we are welcome. If it was the gods’ spirit I felt, would I not feel more at ease? I find myself stealing glances over my shoulder because the idea that someone – or something – may be watching us suddenly doesn’t feel as foolish anymore.