Alex Writer was in agony. Every inch of his torso was burnt, the muscles in his leg shredded and half his face ripped clean off. He felt himself falling and as his eyes closed he realized this was it. The end. He expected the pain to end but as he came around the pain was with him. He couldn't move a muscle. Slowly, he opened his eyes to unfamiliar surroundings. His first thought was about his gold. With great difficulty, he lifted his head and looked around taking in his surroundings. The ground beneath him was cold, hard and unforgiving. The walls appeared to be rough stone, caked with damp mud. There was a primitive wood fire burning. He stared into the flames fascinated, he'd never seen one of them in person even when he was on Earth. Next to the fire, there were clay pots that looked like they came from the stone age. Alex panicked. Had he travelled back in time by mistake? It was dark outside, but Alex could make out an arched entrance, he surmised he was in some sort of cave, he then realized that his wounds were cleaned and bandaged. The next thing he saw was a naked little girl right in front of him. Immediately he shut his eyes. The girl whimpered and whined.
"Sorry," he rasped. "I didn't mean to see you!"
She whined some more. He felt a cup pressed to his lips and a bitter liquid was poured down his throat. He coughed and sputtered, but his pain seemed to decrease. The little girl made soothing noises and held out the cup to him again.
"I promise I'll drink it," he said, "But please, for the love of God, put some clothes on!"
The girl frowned at him and cocked her head to one side much like a pup. Figuring she spoke a different language Alex tried speaking in another language. He was fluent in five languages and could manage a few others, but when the girl didn't seem to understand anything he attempted sign language, which given his injuries, was a bad idea. He gasped in pain.
The girl let out an inhuman howl, Alex gaped, his pain forgotten as a beam of yellow light came from the skies and hit the entrance of the cave. As it hit the ground, it turned blue and the blue light grew to form a sphere. The sphere grew bigger and brighter. When the light faded, Alex saw a woman standing in a shimmering green and blue gown, the little girl was on her knees whining in front of the Goddess.
"I swear I didn't do anything!" said Alex panicking, "I just regained consciousness and she was naked. Please tell me you speak the universal language."
"I do," replied the Goddess. "You have caused my child great distress by undoing the hard work she put in to make you whole again. Several of your wounds have reopened."
Alex looked down at his bleeding bandages.
"I didn't realize," he said, he felt numb. Was he was on drugs? And this some hallucination? Or maybe he was dead.
The Goddess waved her hand and the girl was clothed in a brown and gold dress. She looked confused, the Goddess touched the girl's temple, a few seconds later the girl turned and glared at Alex. She let out a series of growls and stomped away making Alex feel as if he did something wrong.
"What happened?" he asked
"The child is named after the trees known collectively as the flame of the forest. She appeared on this island when she was but a babe and has never left. She has no knowledge of your languages or customs; hence, she doesn't see the need for clothes. She has been alone on this isle for over three of your years"
"How did she survive?" asked Alex disbelievingly
"She is powerful" replied the Goddess as if that explained everything.
"Her parents?" he inquired, for surely they would never abandon a child in a jungle…
"I do not know, perhaps something terrible happened to them or she saw them do something terrible and transported herself far away from them." the Goddess mused. Even she seemed unsure now. Alex knew that there was something special about this girl now.
"But all the way here?" asked Alex, still unable to believe anything. He was half convinced that he was having some sort of hallucination.
"Where exactly is here?" he added trying to remember where he was. He was outside his turf, he recalled, heading to the M-81 galaxy in his invisible spacecraft, he had found the recent temple excavation on Alfond and had successfully evaded the Agency who had put out arrest warrants for him in eight quadrants of the known universe. In the temple, he found the carvings leading him to the rain forest, only to find another temple. He was so excited by his findings that he failed to notice that he was being followed. After making his way into the second temple, he uncovered hidden passageways through the navel of a statue that led him to the statue he had been searching for all his life! It sitting on top of a pile of gold, decorated with jewels and it held out the coveted amulet. He piled everything he could into his bag and then nothing. He couldn't remember a thing after that.
"Your kind calls the island the Untouched." the Goddess replied
Alex paled not just from blood loss.
"You are right to fear Arjun- El Zafar." Alex looked up in shock and horror, "Yes I know who you are and what you have done. You are a thief and a murderer. I should let you bleed out and die." said the Goddess viciously.
"This is not happening," Alex whispered, his treasure forgotten for the moment, "Can't happen," he was now turning hysterical, "No one has been able to breach the Untouched. No one can come out alive. Demons!" the last word was a screech. He looked around the cave frantically and his eyes fell on the little girl who had returned with more medicines. She looked at him with her eyes of mauve, full of sadness no child should ever experience.
"Your gold is beyond the forest and it will be gone as your rivals are close to finding it. I can take you to the border and you may leave with your precious gold, but know that your wounds will fester and you will die just as you reach your ship" the Goddess seemed too helpful suddenly
"Or?" he whispered sensing an alternative. The Goddess wanted to test him.
"Let the child heal you, and leave the gold for your enemies."
Alex looked at the Goddess with wide eyes, his mouth hung open. He spent five years of his life searching for that treasure! Five years! He lost his family, sacrificed his love life and killed people, all so he could have the greatest wealth and power.
He looked to the Goddess and instinctively knew she could work wonders.
"Is there any way you can keep them from finding the treasure?" he asked hopefully.
Her sun-kissed skin turned white, her raven locks stormy grey. She literally grew into a storm with thunder rumbling and as she gathered lightning in her hands ready to strike him. He yelled.
"It's my sister! I wanted the power to heal her! It was never about the gold!"
"It might have started for her, but the search corrupted you. All you want now is more!" the Goddess accused.
"No! That is not true! It's for my sister please!" he begged. He knew he should have just taken the amulet and left, but seeing all the treasures just sitting there for the taking he couldn't resist. No one would have missed it.
"She died three years ago." the Goddess informed him coolly
"No…" whispered Alex. He went numb. His Zara was alive, she had to be!
"You know this" the Goddess continued, her voice seeming to come from far away, "she came to in a dream and told you her time was near."
"No. It was just a dream," he shook his head, refusing to believe. Air refused to enter his lungs. His heart raced as though it were beating for two to make up for the life that no longer existed. His vision blurred from loss of blood or tears he couldn't be sure. Nothing was sure. The ruthless leader of the Hawks was no longer sure. Nothing made sense any more. He remembered the dream. Zara with her long silky black hair, khol eyes, rosy cheeks and wearing her favourite forest green Anarkali with golden embroidery.
"Live your life brother," she had said, "Live for me and you."
"It was a dream…" he whispered
"If you truly believe that, why have you never checked on her these past five years?" the Goddess asked. It was her smug tone that snapped Alex out of it.
"She's alive! You're lying!" he accused "Take me to the treasure, now!"
"That is your final decision?" asked the Goddess
"Yes," he replied with determination. He would save his sister if it was the last thing that he did.
"You will never see your sister," the Goddess cautioned, "Your wounds are fatal."
"I will have time to get it to Cecilia," Alex told her. Cecilia might hate him, but she would not let his sister die he knew, "She will use the knowledge and power to heal my sister, and perhaps, the gold was always meant to be hers. After everything I've done, it's the least I can give her." he trailed off as he remembered his woman.
"Very well, if you are sure," said the Goddess scornfully. She seemed eager to get rid of him.
"Wait!" Alex cried out. He saw the little girl, the flame of the forest, now that she was not growling, she looked sad and lost. It was a look Alex had seen too often on his sister's face.
"Can the child come?" he asked
"Why?" the Goddess asked confused for the first time.
"You said she is powerful," Alex replied. Her eyes hardened.
"You are a despicable human being!" the Goddess thundered and she vanished in a flash of light.
"Well kid," said Alex, "Looks like it's just you and me."
The girl gave him a bright smile and held out her hands. Alex tried to get up, but before he could move a muscle, his gold appeared in her hand. He blinked a few times, his mouth opened and closed like a fish. The girl looked at him confused, and then Alex gave her a wide grin.
"Kid, you are going to make one hell of an asset!" he said
She smiled back, in the distance the leaves rustled, and Alex could feel the disapproving huff of the Goddess.
The following days were the most peaceful days that Alex could remember, as he recovered from his injuries. His skin had grown back and felt pure. There was no sign of the Goddess. It was as though she never existed. The only proof of her existence was the fact that the child still wore her brown and gold dress, which gave her olive brown skin a beautiful glow. She reminded Alex of a cherub. Her pitch black hair had brown highlights from the sun and the sand that blew around. The girl never seemed to like to bathe, a habit, Alex assumed she acquired from the local wildlife- lions. The first time he saw her with a giant lioness, Alex nearly got a heart attack, but for some reason, all the animals came to her, lion and deer alike, and they didn't even attempt to hunt when she was around. The vision of her playing with all the animals convinced him that he was truly dead and in heaven.
Sometimes the little girl would gaze into the distance and her eyes would turn glassy. At first, Alex panicked, but he came to know that she was somehow in communication with the Goddess, who she started calling Mother after Alex had taught her a few words. For an island that was named Forbidden, or the Untouched, it was a beautiful and peaceful oasis. The leaves were every shade of green, the trees and creepers had pure dew that glistened in the morning sun and vanished by afternoon, leaving behind clean plants that danced in the heat, while shading the entire island. There was a crystal clear lake a little way in, where the girl got her water and many medicinal plants.
Alex had half a mind to stay there and never return to civilization. He loved the little cave that felt like home to him, despite the smell of damp mud, rough utensils, salt less food and lack of bedding. When he regained some of his strength, Alex went to the crystal lake for a proper wash. He saw his reflection and did a double take. There was no evidence of his injuries at all. His long face appeared whole, his dark blond hair had grown back, though it was shorter from what it was, he had a faint stubble and his eyes that usually cackled with electricity were now a plain light blue. Afterwards, he created a soft feather mattress that the girl leapt onto, delighted. He could have stayed there forever, however, he had a duty, and when he was fully healed the little girl packed up her medicines, utensils and a few rocks.
They walked in silence to the edge of the forest.
"You sure you want to come with me?" Alex asked. She seemed to understand quite a bit, even though she couldn't form complete sentences.
"S" she replied with a smile. They reached the edge, Alex kept walking, but the girl stayed back, hesitating. Alex saw her eyes turn glassy, she then looked back, picked up a fist full of sand and tucked it into her bag. She knelt and touched the earth, tears rolled down her cheeks, as they hit the dirt, a few saplings sprouted making Alex stare on in awe. The girl then took her first step into the world and she gave Alex a watery smile.
"Don't worry," he told her as he knelt and offered a hug, "you can come back any time."
Mave glanced back at the forest.
"No" she said, her voice hollow and so much like the Goddess that it sent shivers down his spine.