In the vastness of the ocean, it was easy to lose yourself. My essence was like an atom lost in the center of a perfect circle of blue. The proverbial term needle in a haystack was an understatement when I considered the enormity of finding the Sea Queen. I peered at the pastel pearl in my hand. Its shiny luster reflecting against the blue of the seawater. Such beauty and yet it held a vicious curse. 

I passed coral and fish communities that sang of a visual choir seen by the eyes and heard by the soul, beauty that could only be found in the wild. These corals bore many secrets, countless stories, and wonders to admire, but my mission’s immensity drew me away. The power of gravity continued to drag me towards the ocean bed. As I descended, the expanse of blue was being replaced with darker waters. At these depths, even in my essence, I felt the temperature of the water change. The welcoming coolness of an autumn breeze, abruptly replaced with a winter chill.

Time passed differently beneath the ocean, as though it had dissolved into itself like the shapeless water. I had no way of knowing how long it had been since sunset onshore. I shuddered at the possibility of failing to keep my promise to Selene.

Moving through the depths, I was aware of the ever-changing panorama. The corals and colored sea fish were replaced by deep-sea life that remained in the depths of the ocean’s watery embrace, never needing to surface. The only light came from the luminescence of my aura. Frilled sharks, giant vampire squids, and other sea creatures swam past me without a care for my presence.

The currents and gravity propelled me, and I finally hit the soft sandy ocean floor. A puff of dust rose around me as I landed. I saw nothing but the murky water until a tiny glimmer of light electrified the darkness. My eyes followed the beam to the pearl that I was clutching in my hand. Opening my palm, I watched its glow illuminate the ocean floor, growing brighter. It lifted off my palm and floated ahead, summoned by an unseen force. 

Wading through the water, I followed the pearl, bound by its enchanting glow and the curse. The remains of a ship, dating back hundreds of years, laid to rest on my right. It was barely a ship anymore, with a broken mast and holes along its sides. It now belonged to these salty waters and aquatic creatures. There were many bones around the vessel, a macabre sight of a crew who deserved better than this dark, watery grave. It made for quite an unsettling sight, a stark contrast of the natural world, and that which wasn’t supposed to be here.

I was led to the gates of a palace. Relief flooded through my essence as I realized the pearl was leading me to its rightful owner, the Sea Queen. Walking into the castle with the pearl, my eyes fell on the fourteen massive granite columns that held the room, their bases resting deep into the ocean floor. A makeshift rug depicting stained glass and heavenly mosaics adorned the walkway towards the Sea Queen. She sat on a glorious throne of ivory beneath a giant lavishly gilded statue adjoined by two equally impressive seats. The throne itself was covered in sacred emblems that matched the engravings I had seen on the dagger. Large flowers with a bulb-like appearance on the side of the throne illuminated the room.

While I was busy admiring the splendor of her palace, the Sea Queen, now a mermaid, turned her attention to me. Beating the water with her golden scaly fishtail, she circled my aura a few times. A royal crown studded with precious jewels adorned her long blonde hair, its centerpiece missing. Her right hand held a long, slim spear. As the bringer of a vicious curse that was now mine to bear, I braced for her reaction. I didn’t know if I would have the ability to converse with her, but I was about to find out.

Before I could open my mouth, she said, “Welcome, Goddess. I’ve been waiting for this day for many years.”   

Expecting to see bubbles form in the water instead of hearing my voice, I asked, “Waiting for me?” I was surprised by my ability to speak.

She smiled. “Yes, waiting for you. Every curse comes to an end at some point, releasing both the curser and the bearer from its hold. Now, hand me the pearl, and you shall be free of my spell, as shall I.”

“You? How does the curse affect you? Did you not place it on the pearl and the dagger yourself?”

She stood the spear on the floor, lowering her head as she spoke. “The bane of a curse affects both the bearer and the one who laid it. It is too much of a burden to bear. Equivalent to burning yourself to spark the fire of destruction. The day I laid the curse on the pearl, heartbreak and hatred drove me. I didn’t realize that I was also binding myself to it.”

She led me towards the throne and gestured to the adjoining seat as she perched on the stone. “After my immortal body perished at the hands of my lover, I prayed to Lord Poseidon to grant me passage into his kingdom. However, I was bound by the magic of the curse I laid, so he created this lair for me and granted me a boon that an immortal from his family would return the pearl to my crown and set me free.”

It all made sense now, why I was the one to see the riddle, to return the pearl, and why it became a part of my quest. I raised my hand to give the gem back to her. She picked it from my palm, bringing it to her lips as she spoke in the Jauqali tongue, relieving the pearl of its curse. She repeated the process once more, but this time her words sounded different.

Handing it back to me, the queen explained that the moment it touched the crown, the palace, herself, and everything around us would disintegrate into dust. Her soul was now ready for the Underworld.

The queen lifted her crown and extended it to me. “I want you to do the honors. And as a token of my gratitude, I would be honored if you took possession of the pearl. Henceforth, the possessor of the pearl shall forever be content by the touch of true love.”

Unable to keep the surprise from my tone, I thanked the queen, holding the crown in one hand and the pearl in the other. Looking at her one last time, I touched the gem to the centerpiece of the diadem. Lightning illuminated a brilliant pathway above us as a whirlpool slowly began to form at the center of the throne room. The water swirling and circling in a clockwise motion grabbed everything in its wake.

Standing up on her fishtail, the queen looked at me with a content smile. “Thank you, dear Goddess. The pearl will illuminate your path back to the surface. It will also guide you to the tunnel you will need to cross over to Everheim volcanic mountain for the eternal flame.” She smiled at the wave of shock that crossed through my aura. “Yes, I am aware. But you must hurry. While the pearl has been relieved of my magic, the dagger will hold your pulse only until sunrise.”

I rose from the seat as she began to fall in tune with the whirlpool. “Farewell, O generous queen. May your soul find its purpose,” I whispered as she disintegrated into a thick cloud of dust. With her, everything was gone, and I was plunged into the vast darkness of the ocean’s depths.

The pearl glowed once more, shining its light upwards. For a few seconds, I gazed at the coral pearl’s shiny hue, and I knew exactly what I would do with it upon completion of my quest. I swam to the surface, praying I was not too late. The excitement of knowing the heartfire was almost within my reach coursed through me. I passed through the ocean sights, ignoring them in my urgency to return to the island before the sun.

Moments later, I surfaced a few meters away from the shore. Bouncing on the water, I noticed Selene’s form precisely as I had left her, hunched over my lifeless body. I hovered there for a few seconds, my emotions raw, seeing Selene’s anguish

The sun stretched its golden petals, reaching out to the horizon, announcing its arrival into the velvety sky. I looked at it and made a dash for my mortal form. The glow of the dagger was diminishing to an almost non-existent flicker. Selene held me with a stoic expression. Her eyes dried of tears, did not leave the blade.

“I am back, Seli. I’ve returned to you,” I whispered as I laid down over my mortal form. Just as the sun illuminated the horizon, filling the sky with orange and pink. My body reabsorbed my essence, and the dagger’s glow vanished.

“No…no…no,” Selene cried, glancing between the horizon and my body. She shook me, hoping to wake me from the eternal slumber. The dagger slowly disintegrated into dust, and I woke with a loud gasp. Selene fell back on her side, shocked by my sudden movement. She blinked for a few seconds before her mind registered my return. Jumping into my arms, she clung to me on the sandy shore, kissing me passionately and with an urgency. I returned her kisses with equal fervor.

We remained in our locked embrace on the beach as waves washed upon us. After giving us our moment, the rest of the group approached. Laughter and hugs filled the air as relief washed over the faces of my family members. I felt a deep pinch of guilt for putting them all through this torment.

After the initial exchange of pleasantries and stories of the Sea Queen, I addressed my family. “I have gained knowledge of the eternal flame’s location and resources to get there. I will be leaving promptly to Everheim mountain island. I shall return with the heartfire soon. You have all done more than I could’ve ever asked of you, but now, it is time for me to go on the last leg of this quest. If it pleases you, use the time to rest and recuperate from your injuries while I complete the last part of this journey.”

All except one person from the group nodded in acceptance. Selene shook her head. “Akti, there’s no way in Tartarus that you’re going anywhere without me.” I laughed, expecting this reaction from Selene.

“Yes, ma’am!” I said, bowing slightly.

Leaving the group behind, Selene and I walked towards the tunnel, the pearl guiding our path. Selene gave me a quizzical look, seeing the pearl in my hand. I knew she would have questions about it later. I hadn’t mentioned anything about the Sea Queen’s gift to the group. 

Crossing the tunnel was easier than I had expected. This island had us watching our back, anticipating one challenge after another. We set foot at the base of Everheim volcanic island. The mountain seemed to occupy the entire island. We couldn’t see past its massive girth. Waves rolled onto the small sandy beach that led us into the entrance of a cave.

“This is it, Seli,” I said, smiling at Selene with a twinkle in my eyes. “We enter this cave, find a nautilus shell, and collect the heartfire. We can then be back on our way home to Sayeh.”

Selene returned my smile with equal enthusiasm. “About time!”

The mouth of the cave led us into impenetrable obscurity, our shadows dissolving in the surrounding darkness. Selene held my hand as her glow killed the immediate blackness around us. In the light of her beam, I saw the cavern wormed its way half a mile into the mountain. Its general shape was ovoid, the walls below the ridge smoothly curved to the floor, the ceiling above arched another hundred feet up to giant stalactites. Small, loose stones littered the floor leading to multiple minor cave openings, guarded by jagged rocks stacked one over another.  

“One of these smaller caves must have a nautilus shell we can use,” I said. Selene nodded in response, her concentration elsewhere. She rubbed her hands as a chill swept through the air, its frosty breeze knocking off my bow. Ignoring the cold, I picked my weapon from the floor and strapped it across my body.

Selene looked around again and whispered into my ear, “There’s a spirit here.” I nodded, knowing it was best not to mess with spirits.

Immortal or not, I had no power over them. Moreover, my concern was the nautilus shell and the eternal flame, not the spirit. “Let’s just ignore it,” I replied.

We stepped towards one of the caverns on our right. Beneath the background noise of the waves ebbing and flowing, came the words, “Not over my watch.” 

We froze in place, concentrating on the incessant hissing of the wind and crashing waves. Hovering a foot off the ancient cave floor, the pearly-white translucent spirit shimmered with a hazy bright blue. Slowly, it came into focus as an object looked at through a telescope. But this phantom was close, very close. Its whisper, an eerie rasping voice, moaning and groaning. Finally, we saw its form in entirety—a sailor with a silvery ragged line across his neck and gaunt, soulless eyes. His mouth stretched as if in an eternal scream.

The spirit raised its arm, and we levitated, piercing the air. With a flick of his hand, he threw us against the walls. The impact of our fall caused a few loose stalactites to crumble, crashing down as we laid on the floor in a fetal position. 

Dusting the dirt from herself, Selene approached the spirit, trying to reason with it. “We mean your dwelling no harm. We’ll be gone as soon as we find a nautilus shell.”

“Not over my watch,” the spirit repeated, lifting and throwing us into each other.

“It’s no use. He cannot be reasoned with, look at his tormented face. He died a horrible death,” I said, helping Selene to her feet.

“Well, maybe it’s time to use that,” she said, pointing to the talisman around my neck.

Hekate! She had left me a message when I was getting ready for my quest.

“Dear Artemis, I apologize for not being able to see you off or accompany you on your quest for Sayeh. I am taking some time away, staying in the Underworld, letting the events of recent months settle like ash. Take this talisman with you. It is marked with one of the many symbols tattooed on my body. Trace its three lines—vertical, then two angles—and speak my name. I will know where to find you and will answer.”

I held the talisman in my hand and traced its three lines, speaking her name, “Hekate, I need you.”

Artemis (Rashmi Menon)
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