On Mountain High – Chapter Twenty

Chapter 20 – Kalliope

Every single part of me, from the top of my head down to my toes, is numb. Cold, as though some extra-human power controls my movements in brain’s absence. A tangled web of thoughts and emotions, I feel both apprehension and sorrow. Disbelief and shock. Anxiety and dread. They wash over my body like the river washed over Matteo’s, flooding every piece of me.

Jagger, Iona and I reported Matteo’s…disappearance…the moment we arrived at the checkpoint. Anna was there waiting for us, like always. She simply nodded and bowed her head in brief, silent prayer. That was it. No pomp. No circumstance. A single moment marking both the beginning and end of that line of discussion. Matteo deserved much more than that.

I feel the weight of the Fallen Seekers’ eyes on me unlike ever before. They stare down from their elegant frames, looking somehow simultaneously serene and menacing. Who were they? There were so many. What were their names? Did they leave families behind? Were they alone when the Hunt took them? Or did they have someone there to help ease the transition – a friend, or at least companionable fellow Seeker? Or did the Seekers they thought to be friends stand idly by, unable to help save them?

A shudder passes through me and fresh tears flood my eyes, threatening to tumble down my cheeks, betraying my silent suffering, with even the slightest movement.

I try to talk myself out of my emotions. Well, if I’m being honest I’ve been trying to talk myself out of my emotions since it happened. But it doesn’t matter that I only met him days ago, or that we could never both have taken home the treasure, if we were to even find it, Matteo was a person and he was real and I watched him die. He shouldn’t have died. What kind of future did he have? Where is his soul now? Who is going to tell his family?

We three sit silently at a dining table. It’s late, but none of us are ready to sleep yet. No one says it, but I know we all fear our dreams tonight. Finally, Jagger’s voice breaks through the quiet, solemn air.

“He was fond of you, Kalliope, you must know that.”

This does it; the tears fall unbidden from my eyes, splashing onto the tabletop beneath me. Matteo and I shared nothing more than friendship, of course. And now that’s all we ever will share.

In an uncharacteristic display of affection, Jagger places a hand gently on my shoulder. “Never feel ashamed of mourning what you’ve lost.”

I can only nod in agreement.

“I wonder where Ronan is,” Iona muses quietly. Jagger and I stare at her in disbelief, and she shrugs innocently. “I just…I just don’t want him to get hurt. I don’t want anyone else to get hurt.”

“Who cares where the bastard is,” I mumble, wiping the tears from my eyes. “He’s cracked, completely insane.” I gesture to the empty air around us. “This place did him in. He couldn’t handle it. And now Matteo is dead because of it.”

I feel the bitterness creeping in, and struggle in vain to keep it at bay. David wanted me to get the inside scoop, a true internal perspective, and I’ve got it. The Hunt is needlessly dangerous and devilishly cruel. What is the point of risking life and limb – even dying – for something that may or may not exist? I steal a sideways glance at Iona, who sits next to me at the table. I take in her slender frame, the way her collarbone protrudes too far from beneath her well-worn shirt, the dirt under her short fingernails. But underneath the outer disarray there is virtue that shines through. How is she still so good? How is this evil place not making her hate?

Then there’s Jagger. Body lean and hard from years of physical labor, his face is creased, aged beyond his years; no doubt from the rigidity of the Order’s underbelly in which he undoubtedly grew up. But like Iona, his righteous character betrays his hard exterior; he is too kind to be selfish. What made these two choose to risk everything for nothing but an idea of a prize, the fleeting hope of a better future?

Then it dawns on me. Hope. Man will risk most anything if there is hope.

Hope is the lethal drug to which every Seeker is addicted. With hope, man can do anything. The hope of unearthing a treasure so allegedly vast it could change their world and everything around them forever? That drug is too tempting to avoid. I get it now.

And how dispensable must we Seekers be to The Order. Was this how it has always been? Have the gods always viewed men as little more than simple pawns in their holy, cosmic game? Our entire whole world is built around The Order using men as tools to do their bidding. Sure, they throw the faces of the Fallen up on the wall and call it reverence and gratitude, but we’re all replaceable. What happened to human compassion?

If there’s anything The Order is good at, it’s disguising man’s own pure hope as selfish, destructive ambition to serve its own purposes. Never mind that, when manipulated, that same hope also leads man to destroy each other.

Turning all this over in my head I decide that I’ll tell the story of the Seekers, all right. But I’ll tell it my way.

Suddenly I need to be alone. “I need some privacy, just for a little while,” I say.

Jagger and Iona nod understandingly.

Pushing up from the table, I excuse myself and retreat to the peaceful silence of the barracks, returning to the small bedframe on which I dropped my backpack when we arrived. I sink into the bed’s hard springs, my finger tracing a mindless pattern on the blanket wrinkling underneath my body.

And for the first time in as long as I can remember, I pray.

I pray for Matteo, I pray for the rest of us, I pray for all of the Seekers who have ever passed through these mountains. I pray to the Matron for mercy on Matteo’s lost soul, to the Warrior to bring Ronan to justice for this tragic atrocity, to the Benefactor to take care of Matteo’s family in the city and finally, I pray to the Hunter, pleading in desperation to spare the lives of my remaining friends. I don’t know that the gods are listening, but at least I’ve tried.

Somehow, the sharpness of the pain of witnessing Matteo’s final moments has dulled in my cathartic prayer. I stop only when my eyes begin to drift closed, heavy with a sleep more serene than I expected possible.

I roll onto my side, fluffing the too-thin pillow beneath my head when I hear the noise. Crunch. Crunch. Crunch. The sound of rumpled paper. It seems to be coming from beneath my pillow. My hand reaches slowly toward the sound, hesitant as though the mystery sound was coming from some venomous snake poised to inject me with lethal venom, instead of what sounds like harmless paper. My fingers crunch into connection with the intrusive object, and I explore its surface with my fingertips – it is indeed paper. Folded, likely several times. I gingerly fish out the crumbled note, unfurling its sharp edges before my eyes.

 

Matteo knew what the old woman knew. And they both died.

But we didn’t kill either of them.

And Matteo didn’t die intentionally.

We do not kill unjustly.

Want to finally know the truth?

Come to the place where Matteo breathed his last.

Midnight. Under the sea of stars.

 

Holy gods.

Who… And how did they… Did they know I would be…

My head drowns in thoughts, my heart thunders louder than a screaming mountain wind in my chest. I am wide awake. Someone has been watching me. Studying me. Following me. Following all of us. Someone who has answers.

Checking my watch, I see that it is just after 11 p.m. The note must mean for me to meet its sender at the Dead River, about two miles away. Forty five minutes away in daylight, longer in the pitch black mountain night.

I have to go, of course.

I tuck my recorder and notebook, full to the brim with notes on my companions and our experiences thus far, into the back waistline of my pants, hiding them both beneath my jacket so Jagger and Iona won’t notice them as I go. I tighten my ponytail and run my hands over my head, the motion more soothing than vain. I lace my heavy boots up around my ankles and rise.

“I need some fresh air,” I announce, breezing quickly past where Jagger and Iona still sit at the table. They only stare back at me through tired, hollow eyes, both nodding. “Don’t wait up.”

“I’m not sure that’s a good idea,” Jagger begins.

I cut him off. “Please, I just need some time on my own.” I see him studying me through a narrow sideways glance. I don’t have time for this, I must get to the river. “Really, I’ll be fine. I won’t go very far.”

A lie, of course. But it seems to placate them.

“Be careful,” Iona’s words echo behind me as I push my way through the checkpoint doors.

“I will,” I call back in reply.

I know I shouldn’t be out here on my own. But screw the rules, screw The Order, screw everything. I’m tired of doing what other people want, fulfilling their own dreams. I’m doing what I want now.

And dammit, I want answers.

In the pitch-black mountain night, the ground is more treacherous beneath my feet than ever before. In my hurried rush to the final destination I stumble and fall, ripping my pants leg at some point along the way. I am thankful for The Order’s flashlight that illuminates my path. Breathing in the crisp mountain night air, I fill my lungs ‘til they could burst. I wrap my arms around myself and look up at the stars. I feel so, so small. So insignificant.

I wonder whether the gods are up there.

Whether Matteo is.

Finally I hear the river ahead. A shiver runs down my spine and I do not know whether it is from the coldness of the air, the haunted feeling of returning to the place where someone I cared for was so recently lost or the frenzied excitement I feel at the idea of finally receiving the answers I have sought for so long.

The river is so loud I don’t even hear the footsteps approach. Somehow I managed to arrive before midnight. Using my precious spare moments, I am lost in thought, admiring the beauty of the blanket of stars above, the intricacy of their weave throughout the night sky. That is when hands grab me from behind, latching onto my body in so many places that my struggles are rendered useless. Before I can turn to see my attackers, something shadowy, heavy and smelling a strange mixture of aged leather and an acrid, pungent stink is dragged over my head.

My brain slows, my eyelids flutter and my world goes dark.

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