Once upon a time, a little girl found god.
Who is this girl? What caused her to start looking for gods in the first place? They were gone, centuries gone. A faint memory even before the bombs fell. When the skies burned gold and ash fell like clouds upon the world, there were no gods. Surely, as some say, there are no gods now.
Perhaps they’re right. Perhaps this isn’t a real tale. Perhaps gods are nothing more than a fancy, a fashion that children put on to explain the nightmares away. If they ever were real, the world is better off without such immortal titans. Simpler, more controlled. Livable.
She did find god, though. This girl found her goddess. It is a fact that will not change despite anyone’s wish that it wasn’t that goddess, or that girl, or that real. It just happened.
Here is how.
“Don’t go out to the caves my dear,
The gods are feeling spry.
A girl in a grave is all my fear,
With gods no need to why…”
A happy poem. A children’s song to help the day go by. And Bethany was a child. She had just turned seven, and was more than happy to show how many sevens she could count to.
“Jump six times,
Twirl around three,
The gods might kill you
Or invite to tea.”
Bethany was never a twisted girl. This must be understood as her tale is told. She was one of the sweetest little things that anyone could ask for. From her midnight hair that curled about her face, the bright green eyes that just shone when she smiled, all the way down her favorite sundress to her toes when she ran down towards the forbidden caves.
“Don’t be scared
The gods need us
So just let them be.”
She was just always alone, that little girl. Her parents were whoever they were, and certainly never around. Bethany had friends, surely. There was no good reason for her to venture towards the caves.
There she stood before them. Far from town, far from anywhere or anyone reasonable. Bethany balanced on her toes, looking into the darkness. The single cave mouth loomed before her. It wasn’t tall, but rather deep, deeper than anyone could have told dear Bethany.
“Don’t go out to the caves my dear
The gods are feeling wild
They want some faith and a little blood
‘specially from good young child.”
“Who’s out there?”
A voice. A dry voice, sardonic and coming out of the caves. The question hung liltingly in the air.
The girl peered in. “My name’s Bethany.”
“That’s a pretty name.” The voice said.
“Are you coming in?”
Bethany scuffed her feet. Was she? She wasn’t entirely sure. She had come all this way, it would be a shame just to go back now.
She took a step forward. And then another. That wasn’t so hard. Two more steps. A couple more and she was in the cave. The air grew stuffier, wet. Not cold, not hot. Just wet.
Bethany kept walking. Once she was in it was easier to just keep taking one more step. This was starting to get fun. How many steps before she reached the stairs?
She knew there would be stairs. Bethany wasn’t the first to go this far. Others had, but they all turned back. And none had ever said anything about a voice.
Down the stairs, that’s what everyone had said. And past the whistling hallway, that came next. And then there was a pool, Bethany knew this much at least. And there it was, black glass in the darkness. It stretched throughout a broad cavern, could have been closer to a lake than a pool.
What makes a girl go through all this to reach me? The goddess asked herself.
Jump once. Bethany landed on a rock, hidden in the still waters. She stretched as far forward as she could, trying to see the other side. It was there, there was a golden-brown light coming from the top of the cavern. She took another jump while the goddess considered.
She comes from nowhere, she is seeking nothing.
Jump again, and again. This was fun! Bethany giggled as she splashed onto the third rock. Could she do this again? She didn’t even think to look down, to notice that the waters had no depths. That if she fell she would do so forever.
She brings what I desire most.
A fourth jump, then a fifth. Almost there. The last one was going to be hard, but she…made it! Bethany stood up with a smile, that did it. She wanted to catch her breath before she tried that again, but it was fun.
“I’m ready to go again!”
“Not yet, child.”
Bethany turned to look towards the light.
“This was my altar.”
The altar stretched almost farther than Bethany could see. Stone steps that reached up to the girl’s chest, stacked towards the top of the cavern. Down one side was a long scar in the stairs, trickling down a brown sludge.
“What’s that?” Bethany said, pointing.
“You don’t want to know.”
“Oh!” Bethany nodded. “Right, I don’t like blood that much.”
Bethany jumped up, and scrambled on the stone steps. She slipped, fell, and landed with a dull thud. She stood up, huffed, and leaped again. The girl grabbed the stair, lost it and fell once again.
She sat against the side, and tried not to pout. It was really difficult.
“I can’t get up.”
The goddess’ laughter trailed through the air like dust.
“Do you know what faith is, Bethany?”
The girl scrunched her face up in thought. “Is it sparkly?”
“I don’t think so.”
Bethany nodded. “Me neither.”
She didn’t know what to think. Faith was a word, or maybe even a sickness. Something the villagers got once in a while when it didn’t rain, or rained too much. Or when the blacksmith’s wife decided she’d rather live with the travelling merchant. They all caught faith.
This place, this is what the goddess’ followers thought faith was. This edifice of granite, stretching to heavens in a cavern far beneath the earth. The immortal one could remember it all.
“They would do anything for me that they could conceive,” she whispered.
Bethany cleared her throat. “I can’t get up!” Bethany spoke louder this time, hoping to catch the goddess’ attention.
“Oh, sweet one,” The goddess said. “Think of me.”
Bethany did. Hard.
“Twirl around once, and make a wish.”
Bethany wished. She wished for something more than she ever had before. She never said it, or else it wouldn’t come true.
“Twirl again,” The goddess urged. “And consider your darkest fear.”
The girl twirled, letting the sundress unfurl around her ankles. Did the air seem lighter to her? And yet less comforting? Or did she just make it so?
“One last time,” The goddess whispered. “This is going to be difficult, harder than anything you’ve done before.”
The goddess sighed. “Pray for me.”
Bethany didn’t speak. She just prayed once.
Her feet left the ground, and she was up! Up, up above the first steps, flying. Bethany was flying. Arms stretched out, she could twirl, and corkscrewed through the cave air.
She screamed, and giggled as the voices echoed off the walls. Her voice was a chorus, and couldn’t be stopped. Bethany never wanted it to.
“This is so much fun!” Bethany screamed. She could feel the warmth from the goddess.
The goddess’ attention turned to the altar. To a time when every step was filled with her followers, her faithful.
“Once I held sway over a nation that swept over these mountains. They gave me tears, torn from the sockets of virgins bent over in old age.”
Bethany could spot the glow from the top of the altar. She slowed to a stop, hung above it, and sailed towards the light.
“I was serenaded in the screams of children pushed down wells. I bathed daily in the blood of thirty-seven bulls…”
Bethany lighted upon the platform – a bare surface, save for the altar. Built entirely of iron, it glowed red and golden.
“But all I wanted was faith…” The goddess’ voice was wistful. In mourning.
Bethany looked around. “Where are you?
Where was the goddess? There was no one on the platform, or even atop the altar. She wasn’t the glow, nothing incredible.
“Here,” A voice croaked. Bethany crawled over the altar, and looked over the other side. There was nothing. No, wait! There, nestled in a crack where the iron met stone. A clay jar, a simple clay jar, the lid sealed tight.
Bethany picked up the jar, and stared at it.
“You have a big voice.”
This was certainly unlike anything Bethany had even dreamed about. Not even when she ran through the fields outside, thinking about the fairy kings and queens that hid on the other side of the light. None of her thoughts contained a goddess in a jar.
“Who are you?”
The clay rumbled, steam escaping from the seal.
“I am Arlyle, the Scourge of Darrenfell!” The goddess’ voice shook the altar like thunder. “I laid waste to the nations of Lu-n’kva, and made their holy places my own! I seduced the priestesses of the Dragon Lords in a single evening. I brought the sky low and flooded the earth, to bring my people prosperity and my enemies ruination.”
The jar almost puffed up.
“I am impressive,” Arlyle said.
Bethany smiled. “I’m going to call you Ari!”
“I am Arlyle, the Scourge of-”
Bethany leaned against the altar, and held the clay jar to her heart. “What can I do for you Ari?”
“Put me down!”
Bethany set the clay jar on the altar. It tottered one way, and then another. Try as it might, the jar would not topple or break apart.
“You shall refer to me as Arlyle, the Scourge of Darrenfell!” The jar shouted. “Now release me!”
Bethany plopped down next to the altar, and rested her head on the cool metal. She stared at the clay. “Why?”
The clay rumbled, threatening to burst in Bethany’s face. An idle threat, to be sure.
“I am a god. I reign supreme!”
Bethany wasn’t fooled. She wasn’t some simple-headed child of six anymore. She was seven, and knew the ways of the world.
“You’re just a jar. Or something trapped inside a jar.”
Smoke flooded out of the earthenware. Arlyle flew towards the little girl, claws outstretched.
Behold, Arlyle! The demonic goddess, vengeance incarnate. Her horned crown was decorated with the skull of her most hated rival. Her face, once beauteous, was twisted into a snarl that promised everlasting agony.
“Trapped, am I?” The Scourge of Darrenfell rumbled. “Trapped in a child’s dream, in her imagination?”
How dare Bethany question the Scourge’s power? Did she not know how many gods Arlyle had laid low over the centuries? How her claws had tasted the flesh of countless enemies, for offenses far less grave than disobedience.
“The imagination, your imagination, is boundless, and the jar is only clay. Is that what you expect would hold my power? CLAY?!?”
Bethany clapped her hands, and smiled up at her goddess.
“You’re weird, do you want to come out and play?”
The goddess howled in the girl’s face. Wind tore at her dress, dust whirled around them in a gust. The iron altar groaned under the torrent, before splitting in the twain. The jar flew forward, straight into Bethany’s waiting arms.
In an instant Arlyle was back within the jar.
* * * *
Arlyle let out a war cry, and howled to the setting sun.
“After five centuries, I am free! You shall all once again know what it means to fear the Scourge of Darrenfell!”
She outstretched a claw forward. “The world shall bend in love!” She promised.
Bethany looked down at Arlyle. The goddess was actually smaller outside of the jar, only three feet tall. Her horned crown and skulls looked almost cute against the dusk skin of the being, her black eyes inquisitive in their fury.
The girl, however, was not amused. “This is not how you play tea party, Arlyle…”
The tiny goddess shoved her fist towards the sky. “The Scourge of Darrenfell!”
“Precisely,” Bethany reached for the teapot, and poured a measure into a cracked tea cup. All the china was chipped in some form or another, but Bethany thought that just added character to the set.
“Now, enjoy your tea.”
Arlyle huffed, and sat on the ground. She did sip her tea, in blessed silence.
“Much better,” Bethany nodded to the doll seated on the ground next to the goddess. “Would you like to offer some tea to miss Thraindoodle?”
“I would not,” Arlyle declared. “She is a straw doll and incapable of any interaction.”
The Scourge glared at the doll. “And I suspect she stuck her tongue out at me when I wasn’t looking.”
Bethany enjoyed her own tea with a smile. Arlyle glared at the doll, promising vengeance and fury if this slight turned out to be true. Or if Bethany wouldn’t mind too much if the doll was set aflame.
But soon Arlyle looked at her own tea. Curiosity got the better of her, and she sipped again.
“I’ve never had a goddess before,” Bethany said. “I wonder what you need to be fed.”
“Blood of the…” Arlyle took another gulp, more pronounced. No… It was! “Is this tea Shaeryan Jade?”
Bethany brightened, and Arlyle cradled the cup close. “Marvelous,” The goddess whispered.
The girl and her goddess both sipped their tea in silence.
“You just might be worth this, human,” The goddess grudgingly let slip from her tongue.
Bethany smiled, and raised her china. “You too.”
Copyright Jack Holder