Those below imagine us to be just like them. They are wrong. They weave magnificent tails of our exploits – very flattering and entertaining, but do they see the deeper truths? No. Nevertheless, I shall tell my story in words they’ll eventually come to understand.
In those days, a tiny village was destined to become a magnificent city. The men there bore qualities many humans would envy, but nobody’s perfect. There were still moments of tension, strife, jealousy, and corruption. That was to be expected, but what the outside world did not know was there were some who also questioned the validity of the Gods.
It was the daylight hours, and the streets of Attica were busy with merchants and their potential customers. Travelers and locals bargained incessantly. Complaints were voiced over the quality of merchandise. Animals protested their sale to new owners, and the poor stood close by in the hopes that some kind soul would raise their eyes long enough to notice them. It was into this somewhat confusing scene I had to insert myself.
Locating an area of shadow far removed from the hustle and bustle of the marketplace, I hovered a few feet above the ground. No one was nearby. No one was looking, and even if they had been, I was totally obscured by a structure which I suspected might belong to a blacksmith or craftsman of some sort. Thankfully, it was abandoned at the moment.
For my disguise, I chose the most non-threatening image I could envision. I’d still be invisible, of course, due to my true nature; but if I wanted to get close enough to the human environment to carry out my mission, I’d have to look the part.
I molded a form beneath me: female, attractive, and fair. I dressed it in clothes typical of the region but did not include anything ostentatious – no jewelry or adornments of any kind, just a plain white peplos. All was very simple and clean. I didn’t even bother to include sandals as I wanted to experience feeling the earth on my feet. My hair I arranged down, tied in two parts in the same style that many of the human women were wearing. In all, the form was quite unremarkable. The only difference was that it was made to house someone inhuman, but no one would be able to tell that. Then I lightly dropped down into it.
The shift instantly made me feel uncomfortable. The body, even as light as it was, was still much too heavy. It was thick, clumsy, and slow. I placed one hand against the exterior wall of the building to steady myself as I tried to breathe in the fluid humans thought was air, realizing too late that the wall was dirty.
Recoiling, I noticed an odd odor and spotted some rotting vegetables that had been carelessly tossed away as refuse and landed nearby. I’d been so busy picking the most strategic spot to make my entrance, I hadn’t even noticed them. Now that my sense of smell was activated, I chose to hold my breath. Perhaps this assignment wasn’t such a good idea after all, but these creatures were depending on me whether they knew it or not. So, I gathered my courage and walked out into the sun.
No one noticed my presence. People jostled me, ran past me, and even bumped right into me; yet they never looked directly at me. They behaved as if the space I occupied was empty, which to them it was. Even though I looked and spoke like them, I was still the seen and the unseen. Their minds were so busy with the tasks of daily life that there was no room left to enable them to realize someone was there.
I walked up and down the dirt road for some time, scanning each mind and weighing each heart. I couldn’t understand their words, but the emotions were enough for me to judge what their main focus was: the price of food, wondering if they would have enough for the next day, considering how to best impress a new house guest, bitterness over some romantic problem, women mistaking lust for love, men passing their eyes over younger women while their wives stood right beside them…
My own heart sank. Had they fallen this far already? I turned my attention to some holy men climbing a distant hill. While I could sense their belief, I also sensed something potentially dangerous – stagnation. Practice had turned to routine, belief to dogma, prayers to habitual recitation, sacred tales to empty words. And even in them, there was a seed of doubt. It grew more slowly than in the rest of the population, but it was there.
My eyes began to sting, and I realized tears had risen but not yet fallen. I touched my finger to the corner of one eye to capture one and studied it. The first tear I’d ever shed. I had hoped they’d be happy ones.
As I fought the emotions that threatened to consume me, I became aware of something odd. At first, I thought it was my imagination or the effect of so much energy coming from the crowd; but as it grew stronger. A tingle went down my spine, and a second stronger one shot up to my head. I was being watched. I was being watched. In this sea of oblivion, somebody was looking at me.
Instantly, I was on my guard. Since the humans were unable to see me, then this awareness must belong to something non-human. I started walking again, and the invisible gaze followed me. Feigning interest in some people who’d just walked by, I managed to take a quick look behind me. No one. I wove through the crowd a little faster this time. The eyes still followed me, their owner still unseen. It was such a strange sensation, completely unlike anything I’d experienced before. And I wasn’t sure I liked it.
This person couldn’t be a Deity, for They would have announced Themselves immediately. Perhaps it was an elemental coming to welcome me. Then again…no. They would’ve formally addressed me by now, as was their custom. They wouldn’t spy on me. That was an act of disrespect – or of rebellion. And rebellion led to war.
For the first time in my existence, I was unsure of what to do but decided caution was the wisest choice. Fighting the urge to look over my shoulder again, I made my way down a side street and slipped behind several merchants’ stalls. Reaching a tree that offering shelter from the blazing sun, I turned to face the direction I felt my unwelcome shadow approaching from and held my ground. If it was so aware of my presence it could follow me, then it must be a spirit of some kind. And if they were not quick to make themselves known, their intentions were probably not good. I’d been strictly instructed not to reveal my true self to mortals unless absolutely necessary, but clearly this wasn’t a mortal.
The feeling of an invisible gaze grew stronger and stronger as if the source was drawing closer; yet I still saw nothing and no one but the humans. However, I was able to focus on the mind of the creature responsible now and intensely scanned it. It seemed to be a mass of meaningless babble.
My hand twitched, automatically prepared to call for my shield and blade. If this entity planned to attack, they would lose – but then something flashed in that strange mind very clearly for an instant. Curiosity and… What was that?… Wonder, perhaps.
My brow furrowed in disbelief, but the feeling grew more distinct and constant. The innocent wonder of a child.
No, you’re not a child. Show yourself, I commanded silently.
It was a command they would have to heed, whether immortal or not. I scanned the energy in the air but saw nothing. Then I refocused on the physical environment. A few yards away stood a girl of eight or nine years, dressed in rags. A beggar from the looks of her, and yet her bright hazel eyes were fixed on one point in the space before her – the space where I was standing. At first, I thought she was searching for food (I clearly sensed hunger in her body) and expected her to move on; but she didn’t. She continued staring intently into the shadows cast by the nearby tree.
Were those the eyes I’d felt? They couldn’t be. Even the holy men and devoted worshipers hadn’t noticed my presence. Probing deeper, it seemed she had indeed glimpsed a vague figure, a wispy outline of something unknown. Humans usually feared the unknown, but this one was drawn to it.
All this I learned in mere seconds. The little girl continued peering into the shadows, and I remained still, my light dimmed as low as I dared. She could see nothing now, yet still refused to leave. Then she began inching closer, not frightened but cautious, and called out softly. The sound was meaningless to me, perhaps a greeting of some kind. When she was only a few feet away, she reached out and brushed the air in front of her. Of course, she couldn’t feel anything.
Then the child did something I never would have unexpected: she knelt. When she spoke again, the words were still meaningless; but the intention was clear. She was petitioning me to make contact.
There was a genuine sincerity in her, something the others lacked. From what I could glean from her consciousness, she thought I was a guardian spirit watching men’s affairs. There was no suspicion of Divinity, which was good. She spoke again, in a more pleading way this time. There was such innocent respect and tenderness emanating from her, that I considered it. I was in disguise, after all; and this was the most interesting and unexpected show of belief I’d seen in ages. As long as I did not reveal my true self, all would be well.
Making sure my light was concealed, I allowed my form to be seen, appearing to emerge from the swirling dust of the shadows. I tried to come into view slowly to avoid making her panic, but as expected, fear shot through her. I heard her heart race and sensed the sudden urge to flee. I raised my hand and spoke quietly, softly.
“Don’t be afraid, small one. You are in no danger.”
I saw telepathically that she didn’t understand, but the tone was enough to calm her. She sat before me awestruck, frozen in place. She could see I looked human but knew I was not. Puzzlement blended with her curiosity.
To put her more at ease, I scanned a different area of her mind. What was it she believed she needed most? Food. That’s right, I sensed hunger in her before. It had been quite a while since she’d eaten.
I tried to adjust my voice so she would hear my message in her own language then held out my hand. A piece of bread appeared in it.
“For you – your prayer was answered.”
She stared at it, wondering how it had materialized out of thin air. Then she gathered her courage and slowly reached out to take it. Seeing it was indeed real, she looked up at me with even more wonder and bowed low. Her thoughts were becoming clearer now, and with them her words.
“What have I done to deserve such an honor?”
“You had faith.”
She was able to understand me now, and vice versa. “Many days I have been hungry, but I never asked for food for myself – only for those less fortunate than me. I asked the Gods to show me the way, to tell me what I must do make Them happy. Please, tell me who you are, Great One, so I may thank you properly.”
I hesitated, knowing I couldn’t grant that request. “Offer thanks to those Above, not to me. Now eat. Refresh yourself.”
She broke a piece of bread off the end and offered it to me, smiling. “I give thanks to all Those Whose names I may never know and to their lovely messenger of light.”
Not wanting to seem rude, I accepted the bread and tried to eat it. At first, it was dry. Then it turned slimy. It was almost impossible not to be disgusted by the consistency, but the little girl was so pleased by the fact that I’d joined her in a meal I didn’t have the heart to take that joy away. So, I distracted myself by asking another question.
“What is your name, little one?”
“Arche,” she replied.
I listened carefully to how she pronounced it and was struck by the obvious sign. “That name has meaning for me. What makes you have faith in the Gods?”
“All things,” she said, a giant smile spreading across her face. “My parents showed me how They provided for us no matter how poor we were or how cruel men were. We always had air to breathe, clothes to wear, and love to bind us together.”
“And yet you starved,” I noted.
“Yes, Great One, we starved,” Arche conceded. “And then just when we thought all was lost, someone would help us. Once, it was a wealthy merchant. Another time, a weaver took pity on us. Last year, a blind beggar shared his alms with us. And today, They’ve sent me you. Father always said, ‘The Gods move when the time is right, not when men wish Them to. They see what we do not. Who are we to command Them?’”
“Wise words. Where are your parents now?”
“They rest in the land of the dead. Illness took them within days of each other. I nursed them to the last,” she added, her voice faltering slightly. She tore the last of the crust and carefully sprinkled the crumbs on the ground between.
Now it was my turn to be puzzled. “Why do you do that?”
“Look.” She pointed to a colony of ants nearby. They were quick to discover the tiny morsels and within seconds had formed a chain to carry them away. “They must eat, too.”
My heart was touched by her concern for the little creatures. Still, I felt her pain and loneliness. “Do you resent the Gods for not healing your parents?”
Arche considered the question then shook her head. “There will be no more hunger for them now, no pain or suffering. Perhaps the Gods move differently in each person’s life. Not all people are the same, are they?”
“Aren’t they?” I said dubiously.
“Well…” she frowned, deep in thought. “If they were, there would only be one mortal living all alone in this world. The Gods must still care and perhaps even have plans for me. Otherwise, They would’ve let me perish, too. Instead, They sent you.” The sadness was replaced with gratitude.
“Please, let me follow you. I will be your servant for the rest of my days or as long as the Gods decree it.”
Follow me? This was the sign, the one I’d been waiting for; but I hadn’t expected it to come so soon – or in so small a package.
“To follow me would come at great cost to you, little one. You may be abandoned by all others, laughed at, scorned, and disgraced.”
“I care not,” she said earnestly. “What is man’s opinion to that of Those Who give life?”
I eyed her carefully. “Will you follow me even if I ask you to part with all you have?”
“Then go to the marketplace and offer your cloak to the first person you see who has less than you.”
She bowed, stood up, and hastened back down the dirt path to the busy market.
“No need to run,” I said, chuckling at her zealousness.
Arche turned back, but I’d already vanished from her sight. She was startled but, surprisingly, didn’t hesitate very long. Heeding my instructions, she returned to the market and quickly moved through the bustling crowd. Her gaze rested on a blind beggar whose clothing was even shabbier than hers. I saw in her mind that this man reminded her of the one who’d shared his alms with her parents before their deaths. She took off her cloak, her one last possession, and wrapped it securely around his fragile body.
“The Gods have heard you, my lord. May you rest well tonight and always.”
“Oh, bless you child! Bless you!” he wept. “For days, not a soul has taken pity on me; but Those above heard my prayers. They have not forsaken mankind!”
She kissed his weathered cheek before making her way back to the side street and to the forgotten space behind the abandoned stalls. Returning to the tree, she saw I wasn’t there. She looked high and low and called out several times, but I remained silent, waiting to see what she’d do.
The thought occurred to her that maybe I’d followed her into the marketplace. Being small, she couldn’t see above the crowd. So, she climbed atop one of the empty stalls to get a better view – nothing. I expected her to feel disheartened, but she climbed back down and waited patiently by the tree once again, unknowingly standing just a few feet from me. She gazed up at the sky.
“My lady, I did as you asked.”
Impressed, I reappeared and placed my hand on her shoulder. She jumped at the unexpected touch but smiled when she realized who it was.
“Did you surrender your cloak?”
“Yes, Great One.”
“Do you feel the cold?”
Arche held her head a little higher than before and answered nonchalantly. “Not so much.”
“Will you follow me even if I ask that you spend your life alone, shunned by mankind?”
“Then go to the sacred place that sits forgotten amidst the weeds outside the city. Wait for me there, and I will tell you what to do.”
The sacred place? She knew it well. Memories of days spent near it with her parents flitted through her mind, and she bowed before hastening away again, excited. Following at a discreet distance, I saw her locate the fallen stones and remnants of a simple shrine the earlier settlers had built to the Gods. She bowed respectfully and then sat on the hard ground to wait.
Would she tire of waiting? I wondered. Perhaps it was only the sight of my image that gave her confidence. What would happen if she thought I’d forgotten her? I chose to remain hidden and see how long she would keep her promise.
The hours passed quickly for me but were very slow for her. Darkness came and with it, long shadows and frightening sounds. The air grew cold, the spot lonely. The tall trees moved eerily in the breeze.
Arche still waited, eyeing the shadows with uncertainty. She had no flame for light, no cloak for warmth, and no food to stave off the hunger that was already returning. She crept closer to the shrine and lay down to rest her head on one of the fallen stones. Whispered prayers left her lips, and she eventually fell asleep, shivering as the wind cut through the thread bare cloth of her peplos.
Then I made my move. I emerged from beyond her sight and sat down beside her. Caressing her hair gently, I whispered, “Wake now, little Arche.”
Her eyes popped open, and she bolted upright. “Forgive me, my lady. I tried not to sleep, but…”
“Nonsense,” I laughed. “Mortals require rest. Have you waited for me?”
“Did you think I’d abandoned you?”
“No, Great One. You said you would come.”
“Do you feel the cold?”
Once again, she held her head a little higher. “Not so much.”
I knew otherwise but smiled. “Will you follow me even if I send you to the place all men dread?”
“Yes, Great One.”
“Then go to the seashore. You’ll find a great stone near the water’s edge. Climb it. And once you reach the top, do not move until I come for you.”
Without hesitation, she made her way down to the ocean. I was taking a risk sending her so close to Poseidon’s territory, but as long as she didn’t go too far from the shore, she would be safe.
I watched her, concealed again from human sight. The night air was cold enough at the shrine by the woods, but here it was far worse. Her tattered gown was no protection at all against the freezing sea spray and the high winds that buffeted her relentlessly. She found the boulder near the water’s edge and managed to climb to the top. Her teeth chattered. Her hair whipped about her face, her sight blinded by the spray.
A storm was coming – in more ways than one. I recognized the fury as Poseidon’s realm automatically reacting to a possible intruder. It was nothing more than a warning but still terrifying enough to frighten humans.
A large wave broke against the rock, and Arche held on for dear life. A second hit, completely dousing her. She nearly lost her grip but managed to hold fast. Then a third came, even larger and stronger. She saw it just in time and pressed herself against the stone.
I could feel and smell the fear coursing through her. She wanted to cry out for me, but her mouth was full of salt water. More waves broke, and each time, she nearly fell. Choosing instead to trust and wait for me, she stopped struggling and just waited as the sea did its best to break her. It didn’t.
I raced forward and leapt up beside her. She was frozen to the bone and could hardly feel me separate her from the rock and carry her to the comparative safety of the shore. A woolen robe appeared at my will, and I wrapped her in it and held her close. She quickly revived.
“Did you do as I asked?” I said calmly.
“Do you feel the cold?”
She hesitated for the first time – not out of deception but from understanding. She hung her head and whispered, “Y-y-yes.”
I lifted her chin until her eyes met mine and smiled knowingly. “Then lean not on your pride but on Those above.”
I bundled her up and led her away from the freezing sea. I’d learned all I needed to know. If this child had enough faith to see and humility to learn, then the men of Attica deserved a second chance. My heart rejoiced, and I knew Those Above would, too.
As we made our way back to the road, my spirit pricked, alerted to a change in the air. I glanced sideways at the cliffs far of in the distance. There was a familiar presence over there, hidden from human sight but not from immortal mind. A slight movement caught my attention. A shadowy figure creeping away.
So, he’d been watching, had he? I wasn’t surprised but was concerned when the figure didn’t retreat in the direction I’d expected. It was moving parallel, as if to intercept us. A confrontation mustn’t happen now, not with the human here.
I spotted a relatively unused path off to the side and took that, my keen eyes making out the entrance to a cave up ahead. Arche was too exhausted from her ordeal to make it back to town. Even if she hadn’t been, a God could easily overtake her.
Instinctively, I glanced up at the sky as a large thunderstorm loomed over our heads.
Here we go again.
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