Chapter 27 – Iona
Jagger and I whirl around in unison, hearing the danger behind us. There she stands, petite, slender, unassuming and murderous. Her red hair blazes like fire in the sharp mountain wind. In Anna’s outstretched arms, she aims a pistol at us.
Terror seizes my heart.
“Follow my lead,” Jagger hisses through the corner of his mouth.
“Sorry it has to end this way, kids.” Anna’s voice is cold, unfamiliar. “But thanks for finally putting the pieces together for me. Where the hell did you find that riddle? Not that it matters now that you’re going to give me that piece of paper before I shoot you. But indulge me.”
“Anna, what do you mean ‘finally?’” Jagger asks evenly.
She scoffs derisively. “Gods. Idiots like you have searched for the treasure for years, none of them ever were smart enough to provide any useful information.”
“’Useful information?’” I ask.
“What, you think his holiness our High Overseer is going to go search for it himself? Gods no. We’ve been monitoring the Hunt’s progress since it started, just waiting until it’s time for us to claim what’s ours. It’s been years, of course. My mother served in my place before curiosity got the best of her. She died in these mountains, went crazy looking for it on her own. She wasn’t smart enough to think to follow the Seekers’ paths. So I took her place. And now, after all this time, we’re finally going to find what’s ours.”
I feel as though I’ve been punched in the stomach. It all makes sense now. The legend told us, told everyone, that the Hunt was cursed, that the treasure was protected by the gods – that only someone pure of heart and deemed worthy by the gods would discover the treasure’s location. What fools we were. The treasure isn’t cursed, it’s guarded. It’s guarded by The Order of the Departed. They were never going to let anyone have it, they’ve been the curse the whole time. Finding the treasure has nothing to do with honoring the gods, and everything to do with the corruption running rampant within The Order of the Departed.
“You think the treasure belongs to you? To The Order?” My voice is high, shrill, not my own.
“Of course it does,” Anna growls. “We are the gods’ second in command, the holy rulers appointed in their absence. Who else would be more entitled to enjoy their worldly wealth than us?”
“How about every hungry person in the city, everyone who is cold in the winter. The people The Order turned their backs on and labeled it “the will of the gods” that some men should want while others have the entire world handed to them.” Jagger’s voice is low, angry. I am surprised at how strongly I agree with him.
“You think the gods would rather reward the already wealthy than provide for their suffering people?” I ask. How many people have died because of The Order’s horrid selfishness?
Under his breath, I think I hear Jagger whisper, “Gods, help us.”
Anna rolls her eyes. “If you think the gods give a shit about you, you’re an even bigger idiot than I thought.” Her brows furrow and her expression darkens as she levels the gun at my chest. “I’m glad to be rid of you two, you’ve been nothing but trouble for me. Now you’ll just be two more sad, sob stories of hopeful Seekers taken by the mountains.”
“No,” Jagger says, “We won’t.”
His movement is instantaneous. Faster than a lightning strike, he whips something dark, metallic and shiny from behind his back.
Jagger has a gun.
He holds it so naturally, as though he’s done it before, too.
Who is this stranger standing next to me?
My thoughts race in every direction and I watch Jagger level his gun back at Anna. “I don’t want to hurt you,” he says. “But I will. Now drop your weapon and let us go.”
She snorts. “Nice show young man, but sorry. Decree #1: Obey The Order. And well, I have my instructions.”
His voice is low and steady, full of confident power. “I’m not going to give you another chance Anna, drop your weapon or I’ll shoot you and never look back.”
My heart beats so fast that I am sure it is going to explode.
“Sorry,” Anna says as she aims at my heart and places her finger on the trigger. “Don’t you know that no one survives the Hunt?”
I hear the shots ring out through the silent mountain air. Two of them, far away sounds as the darkness takes over my world. Then I feel the pain. A searing burn on the right side of my torso, along my ribs.
Crying out in agony, I crumple to the ground, my vision black. Am I dead? Is this death? Where are the gods? Where is Matteo? If I’m dead then I want to be with him. Who will take care of my mother if I’m dead, who will get her the medicine to heal her ailing body? The thought of her suffering, alone and heartbroken at the loss of her daughter, makes me want to cry, but my body doesn’t respond. I am frozen in the blackness, unable to produce a tear.
Someone tugs at my arm.
“Iona, get up. Get up now, we’ve got to get out of here.” Jagger’s voice pulls me out of the darkness. His left hand pulls me up. His right still holds the gun.
My eyes blink open and the pain in my side roars to life, worse now that he’s pulling on my arm. “Stop,” I mumble groggily. “Leave me alone, stop that.”
“Iona we have got to go.” He pulls at my arm again, trying to get me off the ground.
I scream in pain. “Stop, please! You’re hurting me!”
His eyes widen in horror and he releases my arm. “Gods, are you hit?”
I clench my jaw against the pain of the movement and gesture to my side. He gently rolls my shoulder up and inspects my ribs. Straining to look over my own bony shoulder, I can see the jagged tear in my shirt, the angry shade of red rising underneath.
“Gods, you are hit. But it looks like just a graze. I know it hurts, but you’ve got to get up. Come on, I’ll help you.”
I struggle to my feet with his help, and he quickly moves to gather the gauze from our standard Seeker backpacks. Sprinting back over to me, he lifts the hem of my shirt.
“Hold this up, I’m going to wrap it to stop the bleeding.”
I nod hazily, and do as I’m told. The cool mountain air tickles the exposed skin on my stomach and back, a welcome relief from the throbbing pain in my side.
He wraps me tightly, quickly, squeezing the gauze hard around my middle despite my groaned protests of pain. While he works on my body, my mind works on sharpening again. I see Anna lying on the forest floor several feet away. Her legs are crumpled unnaturally, her arms splayed at awkward angles. Deep, thick red blood pools on the ground beneath her head, down to her shoulder.
Finally, the tears begin to fall, causing even more pain with every sharply inhaled breath. “You shot her?”
He tears off the end of the gauze with his teeth, tucking the rough edge up into the wrapping, lowers my shirt and takes my hand. “Iona, she was going to shoot us. She was going to kill us, do you understand? Of course I shot her. It had to be done.”
“But you shot her, is she…is she dead?” I can’t catch the runaway train that is my breath.
He nods, no. “I shot her once in the shoulder, and the second shot grazed her ear. She’ll live. I just needed to knock her out to give us time to escape. I’m an excellent marksman.” Despite the intensity of the moment, a cocky grin covers the lower half of his face.
I am completely dumbfounded. “Jagger you tell me right now, what the hell is going on? Where did you get a gun? And learn to shoot like that?” I look down at Anna. “You’re sure you didn’t kill her? Where are we going to go now Jagger, you freaking shot a member of The Order. They’ll kill you for that!” I hear my voice rising higher and higher with every new thought.
“Shh,” he whispers. “I know. I did, you’re right. But no one’s going to kill me. That’s not going to happen. I work for Havok, Iona, that’s why I’m here on the Hunt. That’s why I have this gun. That’s why I know how to fight, how to shoot. Do you understand?”
I stare blankly back at this stranger, who I now know is working with the terrorist group whose crimes plague our city. The same man who caressed me with tender kisses and mended my broken body on multiple occasions. He’s so bad, but so good. He is a terrorist, by definition. And a good man, by virtue. Is it possible he could be both? Can good and evil reside within the same heart?
“There’s no time for questions right now,” Jagger looks deeply into my eyes. “Anna might have called for back-up. Other people could be looking for us. To kill us, Iona. They will try to kill us.”
His words reach my ears but not quite my mind.
“Iona, do you understand what I’m saying? We have to go now. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you who I worked for, I couldn’t. But you have to believe that I wanted to. I know you think we’re monsters, but after what just happened don’t you think maybe that right and wrong are subjective? I am not the enemy!” He is shouting now. His eyes leave mine only long enough to scan our surroundings.
“Iona we are running out of time, we’ve got to get out of this place. Now come on,” he extends an open palm to me, gun still clenched tightly in the other. “Do you trust me?”