The dark liquid burned its way down my throat as I drank the last of the potion. The Tauata leader came forward to take the empty gourd. Handing it to him, I blinked a few times as heat coursed through my body at a dizzying pace. My feet unsteady, the last thing I saw before I collapsed was the smirk on the tribal leader’s face.

There is no fire like the one raging through a tinder-dry forest. The yellow flames hungrily licked the swirling darkness in a dance of destruction. Clouds of silvery grey smoke permeated the air, burning up my nose. I woke to the smell of charred wood, coughing as the smoke filled my lungs.

Great! The potion was a ride in a handbasket straight to Hell.

With the dizziness gone, I stood looking at my surroundings. A ghastly orange grin tore through a verdant woodland. Unfettered flames licking and lapping at the coppice devoured them hungrily, twisting and swaying in a dance without rhythm. I walked over the blackened bodies, charred bones, and unsettled souls of the wild snatched before their time.

What is this? Where am I?

The woodland was now a shell of her former self as the wildfire tainted her with grey. Stripped of her virescent beauty, they left gaunt, skeletal remains rooted in the barren soil. The trees reached out to the gloomy sky like pallid, gnarled hands, desperate to latch on to another realm and become whole again. Time had only festered the wound on the forest, and the ground was now barren and dead. The tragic display of my beloved wild pierced into my soul. On some level of my consciousness, I knew this was not real. There was no way it could be real. Not when I, the Goddess of the Hunt, of the Wilderness, was alive. 

Am I alive, though? 

Clearly, I was not around when this happened to my forests. I would’ve never let it happen. Never! Then, how? These forests were always so alive, the green canopy home to the creatures of the wild. The blue rivers, fresh and riveting, brimmed with life. A dwelling where animals moved as one to the music of flowing waters and birdsong. 

I intensely shook my head, “No, this,” I said to myself, looking around again, “was in no way my forests.”  

A brilliant shock of white in the graphite sky blinded me momentarily as the thunder rolled overhead. In the flash of a moment, I was hauled into the midst of vast darkness. A dull spotlight shone on me from the velvety sky. I was barefooted, and the soles of my feet felt hot. My antler diadem weighed heavy on my head with the force of an unknown environment.

“Are you sure of that, Huntress?” asked a penetrating yet proprietary tone.

I looked around but saw nothing other than the darkness. The solitary beam of light stayed focused on me. “What? Who are you?”

“Does it matter who I am? Would you not answer me if I was of no consequence?”

“Do not presume to know me, woman. Show yourself, and I shall answer you,” I retorted, my voice stained with a hint of condescension

The single beam of light vanished, plunging me into complete darkness. I squinted my eyes to adjust to the sudden change in vision, cursing the woman.

“You did not answer me, Huntress,” her booming voice reverberated in the darkness.

I stomped my foot, crossed my arms, and took a deep breath. “Yes, I am sure. My forests are thriving, my animals are flourishing. They are nothing like this dump. I know this is not real, so you can stop with your games.”

“Games? What makes you think this isn’t real?”

“I know this isn’t real because I took a drink of that godawful potion,” I answered, anxious to return to my family on the island.

“And where do you think you have come after drinking it?”

“I don’t know! I do not answer to you. I am here for the map,” I said, trying to step out of my invisible prison. The heat beneath my feet burned as thick vines devoid of leaves crept up my legs, holding me in place, the thorns puncturing my skin. 

“What sorcery is this? Let go of me this instant,” I shouted, trying to reach for the scabbard that held my silver blade. But, I couldn’t find either. I looked at my hands and realized my weapons were all taken. The creepers climbed further up my body, their thorns tearing at my clothes, exposing my bare form. I felt my face flush as pain and rage coursed through me, and I stood rooted, unable to defend myself without my weapons.

Ashamed of my failure, I hung my head low. With eyes downcast, I asked again, “Who are you? What do you want?” The tone of my voice, this time, more imploring than conceited.  

A series of images flickered across the darkness ahead as if from a reel of an old movie. I saw my father, Zeus, and a nine-year-old version of me, sitting on my father’s lap. The next scene rolled by, and I promised Dad that I would never allow any harm to our wildlife and the wilderness. More reels moved along, and various views of my lifetime in the woods lit up the dark. The screen came to rest on one particular scene.

I was riding the wind on Sayeh as my senses picked up another wildfire, this time in the Amazon rainforests. Sayeh flapped her massive wings to pick up speed. Reaching the Amazon, I hovered above the fire that had only just begun, watching as smoke billowed from the ground beneath. It didn’t seem to be a big one, so I rode back home to the God Complex and asked the mortals working on the wildlife and environment preservation department of SBF to “handle” it. The Amazon burned for weeks, months, destroying both flora and fauna, but I was too busy to help the ones who relied on me.

The screens went black again, and I hung my head, ashamed of what I had just witnessed. I watched Mother Gaia’s creation burn, devouring everything I loved. Apathy had become my sin in the ghastly face of the demon called pride.

“It was me, my flawed pride, the force that burned and destroyed everything in its wake. I’ve become the largest danger and the greatest enemy of those I was born to protect,” I said in a low whisper as tears rolled down my face. “The spark of the wildfire lit by my apathy.”

The darkness was slowly replaced by light as I realized the imprudence of my actions. The vines loosened their hold, retreating to their place underground, my injuries healing themselves. Clothes gradually formed onto my body as the weapons found their way back into my hands. I was free to walk and leave, yet I couldn’t go. Not without the clue that was to lead me to the eternal flame.

“Follow the stream of lights for what you seek,” the voice said. I nodded in response, with a lump in my throat, as gratitude replaced the censure I had been feeling. I walked, following a bright yellow light for a few minutes, as it led me to an ocean. The water glistened in the floodlight as words formed on its turquoise surface. I strained my eyes to see it and read them out loud.

Whispers you hear

in depths of three

enter the realm

surrender your soul

Only in death

will you find life

As I repeated the riddle, it burned into the depths of my mind. An image of an ocean surrounding a mountain with yellowish red flames twirling at its core etched into my memory. The light started to diffuse as exhaustion took over my mind. The words dissipated as the light snuffed out

I repeated the last few lines again…only in death, will you find life…trying to understand how it relates to Sayeh’s heartfire. 

“O dear huntress, you are now free to go. The voice of your loved one shall lead you back into your realm,” the woman said.

“Wait! Who are you?” I asked.

“You know me as your Conscience,” she said before I heard Selene’s sweet voice calling out to me. I held onto the riddle as my mind rushed through a carousel of images. Strong winds swooped me up in an embrace before it rustled me into a twister, throwing me back onto the island.

Artemis (Rashmi Menon)
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