The great hall of our Divine Parents was a splendid place. Its walls of icy crystal towered above me and vanished into the storm clouds of plasma that drifted high in the atmosphere. Strands of liquid gold ran through the white marble floors, radiating from the double throne in the center of the room.
I’d been drawn away from my usual post, summoned to appear before the throne. Such a command was unusual, and I was slightly nervous. This wasn’t like going to see my real father; this was the Father and Mother of all, Lord Chronos and Lady Rhea. When I arrived, my concern deepened. Normally, the hall was filled with my family – aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces, nephews, and other siblings. This time, it was strangely deserted.
The blinding white light emanating from the throne began to dim just enough so I could see someone sitting there, but as always, I couldn’t distinguish their faces.
“Welcome, Athena, Daughter of Olympus,” Lord Chronos said. His deep, rich voice was kind; yet its strength still shook me to my core. “Come forward.”
I did so and felt both his and Rhea’s gaze as they assessed me. It was a loving gaze but still cut like a knife. Nothing was unseen by either of them.
“Athena, have you been observing the mortals?”
“Yes, my lord, as you instructed.”
“Have you abandoned your post?”
“Not for one moment, except now because you’ve called me. I’m not sure how long I’ve been watching since there is no time for me in the watchtower.”
He turned to Rhea, and there was a long pause. She was strangely silent, and I sensed displeasure mixed with a hint of sorrow.
The situation must be worse than I’d thought. She was rarely ever unhappy. I mentally raced through every thought I’d had, every decision I had made…but could find nothing upsetting.
“Please tell me what’s wrong.”
She did not answer, but Chronos did. “Have you threatened to make war on Poseidon’s realm if he doesn’t allow the humans to continue harvesting fish from the sea?”
The question stunned me. “No, my lord. I never said such a thing. I haven’t spoken to Poseidon since…”
Without waiting for me to finish, he glanced over my head and asked, “Are her words true?”
Turning around, I realized the room wasn’t empty as I’d first thought. The Lord of the Sea himself appeared just a few yards away, easily closing the distance with long strides. His imposing figure seemed much less impressive before the Divine Throne, yet he still drew himself up to his fullest height and answered, without so much as a glance my way.
“Great Ones, what I told you was not as it was but as it will be. I’ve foreseen that war between us will erupt, and Athena plans to use the humans’ rights as an argument against my claim to the realm you yourselves have given me.”
“What are you talking about?” I demanded.
“Yes, so you said,” Lord Chronos patiently conceded, “but is it true?”
“Of course, it isn’t!” I protested. “I have done no such thing. What rights?”
“It concerns a certain village she’s been watching quite intently,” Poseidon continued as if I did exist. “The humans there seem to have become Athena’s pet project. She believes they deserve the best of everything.
“Well, they are no more entitled to the sea’s bounty than anyone else outside my realm. What I allow them to take is a courtesy, not a right.”
For the first time in my eternal life, I was speechless. Of course, his words were untrue. What’s more, Chronos and Rhea knew they were untrue. They were simply giving him the chance to admit the lie and make it right.
At last, Rhea spoke to him, her tone compassionate. “Dear, if you are mistaken, I understand. You and Athena have always had your differences, but there’s no need to create even more animosity. If she hasn’t yet made these threats, then tell us.”
“She will,” he insisted confidently. “I have seen it.”
“Things may change – they often do.”
“They won’t. This outcome can be avoided only if she’s given a new task immediately. If she continues to become attached to those mortals, there’ll be no stopping her.”
An exasperated sigh escaped my lips. “Of all the ridiculous…”
“Such a war would mean the end of half my kingdom.”
“It must be avoided at all costs!”
Despite the insult, I couldn’t help feeling rather flattered by that statement. “At least you admit I’m a worthy adversary.”
Of course, my humor was lost on him. He finally acknowledged my presence by glaring at me.
“Enough,” Chronos ordered. “This has to do with the humans Athena has been observing from her new post, correct?”
“Yes, my lord, and she’s been doing far more than just observing.”
“How would you know? You never leave that palace of yours.”
I obeyed, gritting my teeth slightly.
Poseidon was smug, glad he was taking precedence for once. “On your orders, Lord Zeus has instructed us to consider locations where temples will be built, where men will come to worship and learn from the Gods; but I have reason to believe Athena wants more than just a temple. She wants more than just a city. She wants to be Queen of both Heaven and Earth. Her dream is to surpass even you, Great Ones, and to lead all men to worship her and her alone.
“The village below grows into a city now, a city that will soon be ready to choose a Matron or Patron. However, I know something even the other Gods do not: the men of this city begin to question many things, including the existence of Those above. They wonder in their inner most hearts how the Gods can possibly be real when they’ve never seen them. When they pray to us, they can’t hear our replies. They start to feel utterly alone. Some have already turned away.
“Even if Athena does choose this city, there aren’t enough believers there to accept her. So, she will devise a plan to change that. She will try to force them to accept her.”
“And how will she do this?” Lord Chronos asked, calmly listening to the supposed prediction.
“She will defy your divine laws, even the laws of Zeus Himself. She will show herself to the mortals. She will appear to them as she truly is and offer them knowledge and gifts they’re not meant to have.”
I struggled not to laugh. Appear as I truly am? Everyone knows that’s impossible. If a human were to see any God or Goddess in their true form, they would die of fright! Poseidon’s consciousness has turned to mush – must be the seawater.
I felt his glaring eyes burning into the side of my head, but this time, I didn’t meet them. Like all the Gods, he too was telepathic. Had we been alone, he undoubtedly would’ve responded in his typical manner. He didn’t dare do so now under our Lord and Lady’s watchful gaze, though.
Chronos and Rhea looked into each other’s eyes, weighing the situation silently as they always did, each perfectly in sync with the other. Then Rhea spoke, her voice calm and rational.
“Since you both seem to have an interest in this group of mortals, and because it would be unfair to treat Poseidon’s concerns as invalid, perhaps it would be wise to resolve this another way. What name have the humans given their city, Athena?”
“Go to them – both of you.”
Surprised by the verdict, Poseidon and I inadvertently exchanged glances.
“Both? But…what will they see?” I asked worriedly. “Is it not forbidden to show ourselves to them?”
“In your true form, yes; but there are others.”
Her husband continued, “Each of you will adopt an appearance similar to theirs. Walk amongst them. Study their hearts and bring us the results of your census: you, Poseidon, of how many seek power.”
“And you, Athena,” she said, “of how many seek love.”
“If, you find they truly have no love for us,” Chronos was now speaking only to the Lord of the Sea, “then Athena will be removed from her position, and we shall reassess their fate. The conflict you dread will never take place because she’ll never be tempted to rise above you.”
“Not above me, Great One – above you.”
“Nevertheless, it’s your realm and position you believe are at stake.”
“However,” Rhea addressed me, “if there are men left who still have love for us and aspire to virtue, then Attica will continue as before; and Poseidon will leave you to your task.
“There’s been enough strife between the pair of you. Time to put things right.”
“Agreed. Go, my son, and prepare for your journey.”
Poseidon looked uncomfortable with the decision but knew better than to question their ruling. To be dragged from his sumptuous realm and told to lower himself to the level of a mortal, even for a short time, was not only distasteful. It was ridiculous! He didn’t even like humans.
As he turned and faded from sight, I caught the last strains of his thoughts. Despite the undignified assignment, he was convinced he’d quickly prove his point – rather, the humans would prove it for him. They were such a foolish, disgusting little species. Very easily led…
“Athena,” Lady Rhea’s voice beckoned.
My attention snapped back, and I saw she and Chronos had also heard his thoughts. Although their light was increasing in intensity again, completely veiling their forms from me, I could sense the familiar blend of parental concern and displeasure, mixed with hope that Poseidon’s views would change.
“You will keep your distance from Poseidon while on earth. We don’t want this argument getting out of hand. It would upset Lord Zeus terribly if something unfortunate were to happen to you.”
“And what if Poseidon approaches me?” I asked.
“Then you must do whatever is necessary to keep the peace.”
The storm was raging outside the cave, making travel impossible. Even the road back to Attica would be too dangerous. We were temporarily cut off, and I knew this was no coincidence. I built a fire far enough from the entrance to not be blown out by the high winds, and told little Arche to sleep close to it for warmth. We would continue our journey at first light.
Once she was safely in her dreams (I conjured very deep ones so she wouldn’t wake too soon), I ventured deeper into the cave. The darkness was strange, not like that of the starry sky but more – permanent. I used some simple magic to create a flaming torch to light my way and pressed forward.
The darkness didn’t appreciate my presence. It seemed to come to life and move threateningly around me, reacting to every step, every sound, every breath. One moment, it shrank from the light. The next, it whipped at the flame as if trying to forcibly put it out. The deeper I went, the more it pressed against me as if there was some invisible barrier set up. It didn’t want me to see what lay beyond.
Ahead, I could hear the sound of dripping water. The temperature seemed to be dropping every few feet now, which made me wonder if there was another exit. If so, I needed to make sure it was secure. I forged ahead and eventually came to a fresh water pool. It was fairly large, and a small but steady stream trickled down into it from the bedrock on the other side.
At first, I was glad to find such a gift. Arche would need something to quench her thirst in the morning; humans couldn’t survive long without water. Then pausing, I took a closer look. Somehow, the water looked a bit too clear and deceptively shallow. The surface was as smooth as glass, despite the constant strange currents in the air that had assaulted me and still tried to push me off balance. And hovering just beneath was an indistinct shadow – the same shadow I’d glimpsed on the cliff. A grin turned up the corners of my mouth, and I nodded in greeting, unafraid.
“What took you so long?”
The second I spoke, the breeze stopped – as suddenly erased from reality. And in the same instant, the trickling stream vanished. Slowly, silently, the shadow rose out of the water, causing the fabric of the reality around me to ripple and tremble at its approach. It was black and impenetrable but rather wispy around the edges. It loomed ominously above the surface of the pool for a moment. Then, in the snap of a finger, it solidified. And there before me stood Poseidon, arms crossed over his chest, eyes twinkling with dark humor.
I regarded his entrance, unimpressed. “Must you be so overly dramatic?”
“One human. One human, that’s all you’ve found. Ha!” he laughed. “Give up, Athena. You’ve lost the game before it’s even begun. Concede gracefully, and I will forget your jealous threats.”
“This is not a game, and I have never threatened you,” I said calmly.
“Yet,” he reminded me, floating over and allowing his bare feet to touch the ground.
Keep the peace, Athena. Keep the peace, I reminded myself.
“While you’ve been whiling away the hours, I’ve set about the task I was sent to perform. I have discovered hundreds of mortal souls, not just in Attica but scattered abroad, who will reject your temptations and gladly follow me.”
“Are they loyal to you, then?”
“They desire wealth and power above all things, not wisdom and virtue. Pleasure and vanity are their gods, not truth and love.”
“But are they loyal to you?” I repeated.
“They will be, once they realize I can offer what they think they want.”
“At what price?”
He waived the question aside. “By the time they consider that, it’ll be too late. Besides, you’re missing the point. Attica is already mine. We might as well return to the great hall and inform Those Above you intend to vacate your position and leave the humans to their fate.”
“Not yet,” I said firmly. “We haven’t completed the task.”
He looked at me as if I was mentally deficient. “I have found hundreds of corrupt souls. While you only have one homely child. And what does she believe in? Bedtime stories. It’s over, Athena. Go home.”
“Have you no sense of poetry? You think Attica will be yours simply because men desire wealth and power. They might if that’s all they know, but what will they say when offered something else?”
“The same thing. You offer struggle. I offer joy, and they know that.”
“Transitory distraction is not joy, and those wise enough to believe in bedtime stories are destined for greatness.”
“This conversation bores me. Remain here with your poetry and starry-eyed children if you wish. I will wait for you to admit defeat, or better yet…” his eyes glinted suspiciously. “Perhaps we can settle this more fairly. What do you say to a contest?”
“Between me and you?”
“Between your ‘follower’ and one of mine. You might have captured her imagination tonight, but what about tomorrow? If you believe men can be loyal to you, then have her defend you in battle. If she’s successful, perhaps there is hope for man after all.”
I was shocked by what he was suggesting. “No, Poseidon. We were sent here to take stock of their hearts, and that’s all. Any further interference would be against Their orders.”
“Nonsense. We can settle this ourselves. Come now; be reasonable.”
“Don’t speak to me of reason,” I said angrily. “What you suggest is completely unreasonable and unnecessary, not to mention against the law! No mortal need die for me to prove my point, and I’m certainly not going to sacrifice a child to win an argument with you.”
“So, you don’t believe she’s capable of serving you with such ardor. Then admit you are defeated.”
This was a trap. He was up to his old tricks again.
“Do not think I don’t see what you’re trying to make me do. How dare you tempt me to go against the Divine! Bring no more shame on yourself. Leave now, or I will go before Olympus and challenge not only your authority but your fitness as a ruler.”
That did it. My words brought on his wrath. I knew they would but no longer cared.
“You challenge me?” Poseidon’s image seemed to grow larger and loom over me like one of the storm clouds raging outside. His voice became deafening. “You challenge me? I could extinguish your pitiful little flame in an instant! Do you think your light can stand against the waves?”
“Then send her to fight!”
“Flattery will get you nowhere.”
As oppressing as his energy was, I refused to shrink away. His mind flashed, and I saw he was considering slapping me. In a way, I was hurt that he’d even think of stooping so low. My analytical side simply wondered how my new body would react to the force of impact. Not well, probably.
I could shove him backwards into the water (gently, of course) to give myself time to draw my weapons and escape with the human. Still, in this body, I was only capable of limited speed and would only get so far. He seemed to have adapted better than I had.
“I have,” he said, reading my thoughts.
“Then permit me to remind you: They are watching.”
He knew who I meant, and the thought of reprisal didn’t sit well with him. He backed off.
“And permit me to remind you that I will fight for what’s mine.”
A blast of ice-cold air rushed through the cave, so strong it nearly knocked me backward and made me lose my grip on the torch. Poseidon’s image disintegrated into an amorphous mass of dark gray static and shot past me, making me flinch. By the time I turned to look, he was gone. I still had the torch. It was still lit, and I was alone – or was I? The girl.
I raced back up the passage, feeling the weight of my clumsy body even more now. I could see firelight ahead, which was a good sign. Drawing closer, I was relieved to make out Arche’s shape on the ground right where I’d left her. Still breathing, still sleeping, still dreaming.
I was about to place the torch in the fire when a long wisp of white smoke rose up from the embers and hovered beside the slumbering human. As it dissipated, it gave off a single flash as if the light had glinted off something metallic. That wasn’t smoke. It was a sword, and not just any sword. An Olympian blade. No wonder Poseidon hadn’t touched her.
“Thank you, brother,” I whispered.
“He didn’t see me,” he answered telepathically, not bothering to show himself. “Rest now. I’ll keep watch.”
“Did you hear our conversation?”
“Poseidon’s voice carries well; I could hardly help but hear. He’s planning something. I thought it best to stay near the girl.”
“And leave me to fight him alone?” I teased.
“Oh, I think you can handle yourself. Poseidon might be arrogant at times, but he’s no fool. He wouldn’t have fought you even if the whole Family wasn’t watching. The odds were not in his favor.”
“It seemed as though I was the one at a disadvantage,” I commented, sitting near the fire. “He’s adapted well and surprisingly quickly. Suspicious, don’t you think?”
“Very, but you persevere when he does not. It unnerved him. He truly thought you’d give in. Now he must think up a new tactic.”
“So much for keeping the peace,” I sighed wearily. “On the other hand, at least we didn’t come to blows. That counts, doesn’t it?”
“You know him better than that. He has a long memory.”
I was suddenly tired – not physically so, but tired of the scheming, plotting, bad tempers, and arguments that never saw any resolution. “When will this ever end?”
I could almost feel my brother shrug his shoulders. “When he admits he’s wrong. Enough talk. It’s late.”
The sudden parental tone amused me. “You sound just like Father sometimes.”
“That’s the nicest thing you’ve ever said to me.”
I chuckled at our private joke and rested my head against the rock wall of the cave, wincing at how uncomfortable it was. I had no need for sleep, but I did need time to reflect.
“The storm will not pass until morning.”
“I know,” I murmured, closing my eyes.
My brother’s voice turned grave with concern. “Take care then, Athena. Be on your guard, for he comes in many guises. Your presence is a constant threat to him, and while he has fooled others into believing he simply wants to be left alone, it’s merely a ruse to get him closer to his heart’s desire.”
“And patronage of a city is no small prize,” I added. “Would that give him what he wants?”
“Then why fight?”
I wasn’t really looking for an answer, but he gave one; and the underlying pain was felt by both of us. “Because he won’t admit he’s wrong.”
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