Chapter 26 – Jagger
We do not speak, but manage to locate a calm portion of the Dead River, a little further downstream from where Iona found Matteo’s backpack. She shakes from head to toe, and I do not release her hand.
The white hot rage that coursed through my body when I heard Iona cry out and saw Ronan on top of her was unlike anything I have ever felt. I am scared of my feelings for this woman. I am scared of the lengths I will go to keep her safe.
I am scared of myself.
Havok turned me into a deadly weapon with their intensive training. I almost pulled my gun on Ronan. I almost killed him. Iona’s voice is far away, asking whether I am okay, says I have blood on my face. I feel nothing. No pain at all. Just rage.
I wish I’d killed him.
I wish I was sorry for having wanted to.
We rest near the water, and Iona wipes clean my face. I begin to feel the pain. The dull ache through my nose and the rest of my face, the sharp stab when she holds the wet section of her shirt to it. Broken, I think. Ronan must’ve gotten at least one good hit in. I want to go back and rip his throat out for it.
I can’t believe I did that to Iona. I shouldn’t have left her to go look for the man from my dream. That was stupid and foolish. I put her in danger. Thank the gods I decided to come back when I did. I don’t want to think of what would have happened had I decided to continue my search.
“I’m sorry that I left you alone,” I offer meagerly.
She forces a brave smile. “You couldn’t have known.”
“Iona,” I begin, keeping my tone soft and tender. “You don’t have to be brave around me. It’s okay.”
I see her pause, her pretty face folded into an unhappy expression. “Why would the gods have done that to me? Why have they have let that happen?” The corner of her mouth twitches, and a single tear falls gently down her cheek. She wipes it away before I get the chance.
“Iona,” I begin gently, “The gods didn’t do that to you, they didn’t let anything happen. That was Ronan who did that to you. The gods aren’t responsible for the desperate actions of a broken man, or any of our actions. The gods work for our good, and I think deep down, you know that.”
Another tear falls. “Do you want to know why I volunteered as a Seeker? I did it for my mom. She’s sick Jagger, really sick. Her medicine stopped working, and I can’t afford the new treatment she needs. I have to find the treasure, so she can get better. I can’t lose her, I can’t.”
More tears fall and sobs rock her small frame. I pull her close and after a moment’s hesitation, she leans into me. I hold her until the tears run out, focusing on her comfort instead of how good it feels to have her in my arms.
“We’re going to find it,” I whisper into her hair. “For your mother. And for us. We will find it.”
It is a long while before either of us move. Finally, she pulls away from me and wipes her face clean of the salty tears. “Enough of that. We have to talk about what I found in Matteo’s backpack. The note was a riddle.”
She nods yes with a sniffle. “I found it on an old strip of paper, totally unmarked and unlabeled, so I don’t know where it came from. But it must have been important, or from a reliable source if he felt it was important to bring along.”
“And apparently too valuable to share with us.”
“You don’t know that, maybe he planned to tell us but just never got the chance before…” Neither one of us finishes her sentence.
“All right, fine. What did it say?”
She pulls the tattered piece of paper from her pocket, unfolds it with gentle hands and passes it to me. The paper is clearly old, stained by time and dirt and wear and tear. The words are written by hand in what was once Matteo’s angular, jagged scrawl.
“Seek for days, yes the treasure is nigh,
Not down below, nor on mountain high.
Go ahead and look, ‘til the end of your days,
For I know where lies the prize that leads to your grave.”
I drink the words slowly in. This is the first real, tangible clue I have ever seen – assuming that it is in some way useful. But gods if that doesn’t sound familiar. I squeeze my eyes shut, willing myself to remember. And then I do.
“Old Sam,” I say.
“Old Sam. He said something at the Seeker Ceremony that day, do you remember it?”
“I remember he was drunk again, and The Order’s officers knocked him out for it,” Iona says.
“Yes, but before that. He was shouting about people trying to kill him, and-”
“Do you think he meant these people in the woods?” Her eyes widen in fear.
“I’m not sure,” I answer honestly, remembering the man who spoke to me through the dream in the cave.
“Jagger,” she begins quietly. “I think now would be a good time to pray. The gods will give us clarity. Maybe they will help us figure out how all this ends.”
This catches me off guard. “Pray?”
She nods yes.
“You want to pray. To the gods. To The Order of the Departed’s gods.” I can hear the anger rising in my voice, but can do nothing to stop the furious energy building inside me. “The gods who turned their backs their people? The gods who seem to have done nothing to help us –any of us– so far in these mountains? The ones who allowed Matteo, my father, and all those countless other people to die? The ones who did nothing to stop Ronan when he tried to–” I stop myself, swallowing the words like bile.
Iona recoils as though I’ve struck her. We do not speak for several long moments.
“I shouldn’t have brought it up,” she finally says.
The terse silence pains me more than I care to admit. But how can she still be so naïve as to believe that the gods give a damn about us at all?
“Old Sam,” I force the words through gritted teeth. “What he said after he claimed people were trying to kill him that day at the Temple, do you remember it?”
She nods no, so I go on.
“He said ‘search ‘til the end of your days.’ That’s what this riddle says. I think Matteo must have heard the riddle from Old Sam.”
Iona considers this. “And Old Sam is one of the only survivors. So…gods, this is insane.” She looks me square in the eye. “You think Old Sam really might know the truth? You won’t pray to the gods, the very ones who gave you life, but you’ll put your faith in the stark mad ravings of a drunkard?”
I frown at this, and then move on. “It might mean something if he’s the one who wrote it. Think about it. Matteo was a smart guy. He wouldn’t have taken such pains to remember it if he didn’t think it important.”
She swallows, then says “So does that mean this is the first real clue we –or any other Seekers, for that matter- have ever seen?”
I nod solemnly. “I think that’s exactly what this is.”
She stares back at me, both our eyes widening in realization of what we have in our hands. “Well then what the hell are we doing chatting? Let’s figure out what this says!” She rips the paper back out of my hands, leaning toward me as we study the words together.
“’Seek for days, the treasure is nigh.’ So we’re close. That’s what you take from the first line, right?” I ask, puzzling through the maze of words aloud.
“Yes, I think so.”
“’Not down below, nor on mountain high.’ Hmmmm…”
“Maybe that it’s in neither a valley or on a mountaintop? As in somewhere in a mid-level elevation in the mountains? That rules out the Holy Peak then.”
There’s got to be more to it than that. Grimacing, I chew the inside of my lip pensively. Then it clicks.
“What if ‘down below’ and ‘mountain high’ aren’t literal, what if it means top to bottom of the Whispering Mountains, but it’s not here?”
“But the legend says its here,” Iona says.
“Yes, but think about it. Everything we know about the Hunt and the treasure is exactly that: legend. Nothing is concrete, nothing is certain. It’s just the legend that leads everyone to search the mountains.”
Iona considers this, eyes alight with brilliant thought. “So you’re saying what if it’s not out here at all? What if the gods hid it somewhere else?”
I see the spark of realization in her eyes as Iona and I reach the ultimate conclusion in the same moment.
“Gods,” my voice is a whisper. “It’s the Temple.”
“The Temple,” she repeats reverently. “The holiest of places. Not the mountains. We could ‘look ‘til the end of our days’ and never find it, because it’s not out here at all! Holy gods you’re right, Jagger. The treasure has to be hidden in the Temple somewhere!”
It is in that moment, elated with sovereign understanding and renewed determination, that I hear the unmistakable sound of an automatic weapon clicking a bullet into the chamber.