On Mountain High – Chapter Twenty-One

Chapter 21 – Jagger

That night I fall in and out of fitful sleep, my dreams haunted by Matteo’s face. I toss and turn, sitting up, pacing, then ultimately lying back down. It goes on this way for many dark hours. But I sleep.

Come morning I’m awoken not by the sunlight streaming through the checkpoint’s window, but by Iona stirring gently nearby. Rubbing the sleep from my eyes I remember now that Kalliope hadn’t returned before we decided to attempt sleep last night. Iona and I pushed our beds close together, because neither could stand to feel alone.

Not touching. But close.

So close I could see the rise and fall of her chest as she fought for sleep.

Close enough even that I could see the small tips of her breasts harden beneath the thin fabric of her shirt in the chilly night air.

We don’t touch now, either, but her movements are close enough that I feel their echoing vibrations where I lie. Air hums in and out of Iona’s small nose while she slumbers still, her pretty face a wash of serenity and peace. Merritt used to sleep peacefully like that.

My beloved. If only she were here. I’m so close to finding the treasure, to getting what I need to make life better for our people. I wish I could tell her about my work with Havok. She would be proud of the work I’m doing – we’re doing – to fight The Order’s stringent vice grip on the city. So badly I want to pull her into my arms. Feel the warmth of her body against mine. Tell her I’m sorry for feeling what I’m feeling toward the young woman sleeping next to me.

She’s been gone so long.

But she would want me to be happy, not waste my life mourning her departure. Though if that is the real truth, not a convenience I’ve conjured to satiate my guilty conscience, wouldn’t I feel less tortured?

The ancient text says that two are better than one. But is it better that I am two with a beloved memory? Is it not a betrayal to be two with someone new? With the loss of Matteo yesterday it’s clearer now than it has ever been that life is fleeting, meant to be well used before it expires. Perhaps there could be room in my heart for them both.

That’s enough thinking, arguing myself in circles is doing no good.

I gently finger Iona’s loose brown waves, eliciting a soft, cat-like mewing sound in her half asleep state. Gods she is beautiful, and much stronger than she believes herself to be. I am surprised by how much I want her. Struggling to keep my thoughts pure, honorable, I withdraw my hand from her tangled curls and try not to notice the curve of her breasts beneath her shirt. I wasn’t that strong last night. She twists toward me, and her eyes flutter open.

“Morning,” I say.

She smiles, a brief moment of pure happiness before we both remember the scene around us.

“Good morning to you too. Looks like we both managed to fall asleep after all.” She yawns and stretches widely, then settles on her elbows, scanning the otherwise empty dormitory room. “I guess Kalliope is already awake?”

I look around too, noticing her conspicuous absence for the first time.

Her backpack lies at the foot of a nearby bunk, which appears to not have been slept in. Unless the Checkpoint staff had already come in to make the bed while we slept? I don’t think so, and a pang of worry slithers into my gut.

There’s probably a perfectly normal explanation, I decide. She was probably too upset about Matteo to try to sleep.

“Let’s get ready for breakfast,” I say. “I bet we’ll find her out there.”

We quickly shower in the barrack’s separate male and female bathing quarters. I pretend not to look when Iona emerges in only a towel to retrieve the clothes she left sitting on her bed. She smiles shyly at me then, before darting off into the privacy of the women’s quarters. Minutes later we emerge, greeted by The Order’s breakfast staff who sets out fruit and dry toast, along with some kind of unnatural looking egg mixture. I do not delude myself into believing I won’t eat it anyway, despite it’s odd appearance. I am too hungry.

“She’s not out here,” Iona’s brows furrow together in concern. “She’s not out here, and she wasn’t in the women’s locker room.”

“Well she has to be here some place,” I rationalize.

“Excuse me,” she shoulders up to a member of the service staff. “Have you seen the young woman who was with us this morning? Blonde? About this tall?” She indicates Kalliope’s approximate height with gracefully straight fingers.

The man shakes his head no. “Sorry miss.”

She turns to look at me. “I don’t have a good feeling, Jagger.”

I don’t want to tell her I’m worried too, that would only upset her more. But she deserves the truth. I sigh. “Yeah, it’s a little weird. Let’s check outside.”

She frowns but follows me out the door. I do not mention the growing sense of unease I feel burrowing deep in my stomach – no need to worry her unnecessarily.

“Kalliope?” I call. Nothing. “Kalliope, are you out here?”

“Kalliope this isn’t funny,” Iona hollers.

I walk the perimeter of the Checkpoint’s exposed face. The rest of it is built into the mountainside, like all the other Checkpoints. There is only one way in or out, and we’re standing in it. My voice bellows hollowly, echoing through the chilled morning mountain fog. Kalliope must be here. There’s got to be a perfectly logical explanation for her absence. People don’t just disappear like this…

Except, in the Whispering Mountains, they do.

“Jagger?”

Iona’s voice is off. Wrong. Adrenaline courses through my body. The dread and panic rearranges itself into alacrity within me. I am alert, ready for action. This is when I am at my best.

“Come look at this,” she calls shakily.

She kneels on the ground, staring down at what appear to be footprints. They lead away from the Checkpoint. Slowly we follow their path, until about one hundred feet from the Checkpoint’s doors, where a second pair of footprints emerges from the trees and falls into step behind the first. Another twenty or so feet further, two more pairs of footprints fall into step behind the first two.

“Do you think…” she begins.

“Shit. Shit. Somebody was following her.”

The color drains from Iona’s face as she puzzles together this terrifying new reality.

Before she can fully take in my meaning, let alone form a single tear, I clasp her hand in mine and pull her back through the checkpoint’s doors. “Help! We need help! Something happened outside, our friend is missing!”

The kitchen staff stares back stupidly at us.

“What part of that was unclear?” Iona has found her voice. “We need help. Immediately. Find us someone who can help now!

The fire in her eyes both surprises and impresses me. She doesn’t look sad, or scared, she looks…raw. Animalistic. Powerful.

“Let’s both try to remain calm,” I suggest. “We don’t know for sure that she was taken. And we don’t know for sure that those…people…took her. Maybe she just…left. Without telling us. Maybe she meant to meet up with other Seekers. That could explain the other footsteps.”

I am met with a bewildered expression. “Why would she do that? She’s been with us since the beginning of the Hunt, it doesn’t make any sense,” Iona argues.

“I know, it’s a long shot. But, you have to admit, there is a chance she’s been playing us. Maybe she’s been spying on us for other Seekers right from the start.”

I can’t quite tell what Iona is thinking, but it’s clear that this thought has struck a nerve.

“Besides, isn’t it better if she wasn’t taken against her will? No matter what that might mean for us and our previous partnership with her? It’s better not to waste energy worrying about something that might not be true.”

She studies me dubiously but nods in agreement.

The High Overseer’s assistant Anna arrives (gods, how is she always everywhere we are?) and we summarize the situation and offer up our fear that something bad – something bad like abduction – might have happened to our friend. Anna meticulously records the facts, pressing us for additional information that we don’t have.

“When did you last see her?”

“We’ve told you this already,” Iona snaps, slamming her open palm on the table in response to Anna’s inquisition.

Anna’s face is the epitome of neutrality, her tone robotic. “Yes. You have. I just want to make sure I have all the facts straight.”

I cut in. “Last night. She was upset about Matteo, we all were. She said she needed some air, and wanted privacy. We wanted to respect her, and her request. We had no reason to suspect anything bad might happen to her.”

“Is it possible that your friend, Seeker…Kalliope, you said?” We both nod, and Anna continues. “Is it possible that Seeker Kalliope left on her own accord?”

Iona and I exchange grave glances, silently coming to a mutual decision.

“It is a possibility, I suppose,” Iona concedes.

“But an unlikely one,” I add. “Kalliope began the Hunt with us and has given us every reason to believe that she’s loyal to our group. What is left of it, anyway.”

Iona winces and Anna bows her head. I know we are all remembering Matteo, as well as Ronan, lost somewhere in the mountain wilderness.

“All right, that’s enough for the Missing Seeker report. I will be in touch with any relevant information. Thank you.” She makes a series of notes in The Order-issued e-tab setting on the table separating us. “The report will be filed as soon as I return to the Temple. The authorities have been notified, and city law enforcement will be dispatched to conduct a search party.”

“Maybe we should stay here, see if…anything turns up.” Iona looks encouragingly at me.

No, that will delay our progress. I want to find the treasure. Havok wants me to find it. There are so many people depending on me. But Iona doesn’t – can’t – know that. I’ve got to find another way to get her to abandon her guard post.

“Excuse us,” I say to Anna, thinking on my feet and pulling Iona to the side. “I think that both Matteo and Kalliope would want us to keep searching. Think about it. Matteo gave his life on this Hunt. Do we want him to have died in vain? Kalliope would say no. Kalliope would tell you to keep fighting. Don’t you think?”

I see her considering my words. They are manipulative, which I feel horrible about, but they’re also true. I think. I choose to believe.

After a long moment she nods. “You’re right.” She rubs her delicate hands over her freckled face, and when she lowers them I see the determination through the tears that welled. “Gods. Yeah, all right, let’s go.”

Anna promises to notify the staff at every Checkpoint of any information regarding what she tactfully calls Kalliope’s “status,” and with that we part ways. Iona and I gather our backpacks and step tentatively through the Checkpoint’s doors. Neither one of us looks back.

We decide to search the Dead River again before making our way back to the place where Ronan found the golden coin just two days ago. Neither of us says as much, but through some kind of unspoken acknowledgement we both seem to crave a sense of closure after the loss of Matteo yesterday. How strange it will be to stand alone, just the two of us, in the place where just yesterday our group of five stood.

Gods, was that just yesterday? A million years have passed since Matteo fell. Since Ronan attacked me. Since I gave into the anger that’s been building inside of me and fought him back. Yes, it has been a million years but somehow only hours.

We make our way silently back to the Dead River and its thundering falls, Iona leading the way this time. The sun shines happily down, unaware that one of our friends is dead and the other has mysteriously vanished. And that a third…companion… is out there in the forest somewhere, all alone, because he cracked under the pressure.

We walk in silence the entire forty minutes. Arriving at the waterfall where Matteo fell, Iona says, “This is it.” She does not look at me.

“Mmmhmmm.”

“I wonder if he’s happy now, wherever he is.”

The Order teaches that when our time on Earth is done, our spirits enter into a seraphic state of immortality and we are joined with the gods. But given Iona’s words, I’m not sure she believes that anymore. I’m not sure I do, either. Not that I ever truly did.

I do not know what I believe.

No. I believe in Havok, in man’s duty to protect and care for his fellow man.

“He is,” I say more assuredly than I feel.

The corners of Iona’s lips turn gently upwards into a delicate smile, and she turns her attention back to the waterfall. Taking a small step toward her, I gingerly reach for her hand, weaving my fingers between hers. It is more a gesture of comfort than of romance. She doesn’t react visibly, but a few moments later curls her fingers around mine, squeezing my hand in silent camaraderie and we stand, silently watching the water thunder down, linked together hand in hand.

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