It had been three days since Morpheus returned with Persephone, and she had been healing. But I feared it was too soon for her physically and emotionally to go back to the primitive’s village.
Athena was the one to devise the plan. The idea was to stealthily survey their surroundings, identify the old man Persephone spoke of, and capture him without harming the innocent natives. “Would you spill innocent blood for revenge? Remember, war always leaves victims on both sides to constantly drown in tidal waves of guilt and pain.”
A reluctant nod and murmur of agreement came from the group. As much as we wanted to kill those who dared to hurt Persephone, we didn’t want to harm the innocent.
“I cannot imagine one of you being harmed again. We’ll focus on the task at hand and do nothing more,” I said, agreeing with Athena.
Morpheus nodded as he stood. “The goal here is to get information on the Eternal Flame’s location. I have been to their village and know areas around that we could use to our advantage.”
“Excellent! We leave at moonrise and use the quiet of the night to wait for our target,” Athena stated.
The full moon grazed the dark sky as we reached the outskirts of the Tauata settlement. Persephone tried to keep a brave face, but she was visibly tense as we drew closer to the village. If there were any other method of identifying the old man, I wouldn’t have put her through this ordeal.
We used the dense foliage surrounding the settlement to our advantage. I crouched behind the shrubbery with Selene not too far from the massive tree where Persephone hid with Morpheus. Athena, Medusa, and Urania were close by, hidden similarly. It was late, and most of the Tauata families had retreated to their huts. From the size of the village, it seemed the islander’s population couldn’t be more than a few thousand.
At the center stood a shrine dedicated to the God they worship, Paluaga. Tiki lamps adorned the stupa where a couple of males stood guard. Their arms and torsos were painted with sigils and decorated with ornaments made from wood and shells. The guards wore identical marks, but they differed from the ones on females and other males. Perhaps the sigil was a mark of their rank within the tribe.
After an hour of waiting, we noticed that most of the islanders had retreated to their huts. The old man we sought was nowhere to be seen. I wondered if it’d be a futile exercise to wait any longer. A shrill voice brought my attention back to the village. A tall, dark islander with thick grey hair came out of the hut across from the shrine. He carried a gourd in his left hand and the wooden shaft in his right. His long white beard was knotted into a tight braid. Large sigils were painted all over his body, his face and forehead decorated with tattoos.
“Is that him?” Selene asked, whispering into my ear. I turned to look at Persephone. Small beads of sweat formed on her face, trickling down her neck. Her eyes grew wide as she recognized the man with the wooden shaft. Morpheus held her in an embrace with one hand and stroked her back with the other. Athena signaled to ask if it was time to attack, I looked at Persephone again. She was breathing heavily but slowly turned to look at me. She took another quick glance at him and shook her head in the negative.
The man was performing a ritual, praying to Paluaga. The few who remained outside their huts quickly retreated when they saw him emerge. The shrill cry was an announcement of his arrival. He seemed to hold a position of power in the village, the tribe’s leader, perhaps. The man bowed to the shrine and poured the liquid from the gourd over the statue of Paluaga. When he was finished, another male came forward for his prayers. He looked almost as old as the leader, but the sigils and tattoos on him differed. A flurry of movement from my right grabbed my attention. Persephone motioned us, pointing to the man who followed the leader.
There were two guards, the old man, and the leader. Four of them should be easy enough for us. We had to take them all out at the same time to avoid waking up the rest of the village. Selene blew out the tiki lamps, killing the light. Athena skillfully seized the spears from the guards before knocking them unconscious with hers. Morpheus gagged and bound the old man while I did the same with the leader in the darkness. We didn’t really need the leader, but it’d be unwise to leave him behind.
We dragged the old man and the leader out of the village and brought them back to our camp. The guards would wake up in the morning without realizing that their leader and friend were missing, but not for long. Soon, their families would notice their absence, and send their hunters in search. We had to act before that!
Back at the camp, we bound their hands and feet using vines from the forest. Persephone stood near the old man, nervous emotions evident in her stance as she recalled his words. I walked up to him and splashed cold water on his face. He jerked as he woke up, staring at her. The rest of the group formed beside us.
Selene bent down and pulled the gag from his mouth. Getting straight to business, she asked, “What do you know about the Eternal Flame?” The man looked at her with confusion and fear. His eyes left hers, tracing the rest of us until it rested on Persephone. They grew large as he recognized her.
“I don’t know what you speak of! What is this Eternal Flame?” the old man yelled.
The leader kicked and struggled to break free from the vines. Athena took off his gag and helped him sit up. His eyes grew wide as he looked between the old man and Persephone. I moved closer to him. “You seem to know something. Where is it? The Eternal Flame?” He shook his head, furiously refusing to speak.
“The Eternal…Ever-Living Fire,” I asked again, and he turned his face away from mine.
At the mention of the Fire, the old man’s eyes lit up. “You seek the source of Paluaga’s fire?” he croaked. “That knowledge is forbidden to the unworthy!”
At the mention of Paluaga, Morpheus stepped out, showing himself to the old man and the leader. “I decide who is worthy.”
The old man turned, looking between Morpheus and his leader, shock and horror on his face.
“We do not want to harm you or your subjects. We only need to know the location of the Ever-Living Fire,” I said, following the old man’s line of vision to the leader.
“If Paluaga himself cannot lead you to the source of the fire, how can I tell you?” he asked, looking at Morpheus.
“It is not my duty to lead them to it, noble one. It is yours. Go ahead and share your secret,” Morpheus prodded, posing as the Paluaga, the only God, Tauta’s knew.
“To see the source of his powers, you need to leave this realm,” the leader answered.
Athena stomped her foot. “You either tell us the truth, or we kill you and every living soul from your village!” she said, bouncing her spear hard on the ground. The leader gasped at Athena’s fury.
“I speak the truth. The only way to see the Ever-Living Fire is to transport yourself into the reality realm by drinking the phial of hellion.”
“Arty, it’s a trick! Their potions do nothing but harm!” Persephone quickly said, remembering how the dark potion they had forced on her rendered her helpless and devoid of powers.
“Your hunters are not going to trace you here, that much we’ve made sure of. So it’s in your best interest to cooperate if you don’t want your village electing a new leader,” I said, pointing my silver blade to his heart.
“The leader speaks the truth…he can only speak the truth. He cannot lie!” the old man said with urgency, fearing for his leader’s life.
The leader nodded. “He’s right! I am bound by a blood oath to Paluaga. By the magic in our blood, I will fall dead should a lie escape my tongue,” he stated. I looked at the group before asking him about the potion.
The leader sighed, exhaling a gust of air. “The phial of hellion is a strong potion. Whether mortal or immortal, nobody can wield more than a sip of the potion at a time. To see the map that’ll lead you to the mountain hosting the Ever-Living Fire, you will need to drink the potion multiple times. There’s no telling if the person doing it will survive.”
“Is that why you haven’t visited the mountain?” I asked.
He looked up, shocked by what I had just asked, and nodded. “Each time I take the potion, I see a different part of a puzzle. All my life, I have been trying to piece it together, but my mind is unable to retain the information when I return from the reality realm.”
Athena came up to me with a suggestion. “The mortals may not be able to remember the piece of the puzzle, but we are bloody immortals. Our essence should be able to hold on to the puzzle long enough for us to put it together…if we were all to take this potion at the same time.”
I shook my head. “No way! I am not giving you all a potentially lethal potion to drink.”
“And what makes you think we’ll allow you to drink it by yourself? How could I ever face Apollo if I did that?” Urania asked.
“Akti, we are all here on our own accord. When we said we’ll help you, it meant until you find what you seek.” Selene said, wrapping her arm around my waist.
I looked at the group. Here was my family, everything that mattered to me, ready to go on a dangerous path for me. For Sayeh!
The Tauata leader turned to face me. “I will prepare the phial of hellion for you and your friends, and in return, you grant us our freedom.”
I contemplated it for a few minutes and replied, “It’s a deal, but you get your freedom after we’ve returned to this realm.”
The leader nodded his acceptance. I freed him from the vines and watched as he conjured the herbs for the potion.