The preacher of the new god stood before the temple and took a deep breath. This was foolish, he knew. It was illegal to preach of foreign gods in the city. At best, he was likely to be mocked and derided, laughed out of the temple and told to preach his gospel to the beggars and the madmen of the slums. At worst, they might beat him or stone him.
That’s what the Hellenes did, Paulus had told him. They played at being a civilized people with their carefully planned cities and their marble columns. Perhaps most of them were innocent, as innocent as non-believers could be. They said their misguided prayers and their left offerings to their stone idols and they went about their lives like good folk everywhere tried to. “We preach for them,” Paulus had said. “For those who would follow the one true God and his son but are cursed with living in ignorance. We preach to save them, just as we have been saved from our own ignorance.”
The preacher kept this mission firmly in mind as he walked up the steps of the temple. “What you do now, you do for the good of others, for their salvation.”
The inside of the temple was much as he had imagined it would be. Dimly lit by candles and braziers, smoky with incense, and crowded with people from all walks of life. A vendor stood in the corner peddling herbs and animals to be left as sacrifices, coins and figurines to be used as votive offerings. No one paid him any mind, but why should they? They didn’t know that he had come to speak as the prophet of the one true God. As he stood there in silence, a few eyes began to drift away from the altars and settle on him. The Hellenes spoke to each other in hush whispers. Expectant and curious and wary faces regarded him. There was nothing else to do but begin his sermon.
The preacher took a deep breath and let it out slowly. Another. “Men and women of this fine city, I see clearly that you are very religious. In my time in this place, I have seen many objects of your worship, statues and altars and other fine things. You have a goddess for the harvest, a god for the sea, gods and goddesses for every aspect of your lives. No matter the supplication, there is a deity you can turn to for help. But if you will hear me, I will tell you of the one true God, the God who hears and answers your prayers even when you bend your knee to false idols.”
The sermon went on, and slowly a crowd began to gather before the preacher. His eyes scanned the faces before him nervously at first looking for any sign of malice, but as more came to hear his words, his confidence grew. “Why, I see in this very temple an altar bearing the inscription ‘To an Unknown God,’” he said. “I tell you, when you worship at this altar in ignorance, you worship the God that made the world and everything in it!”
A voice called out. “Our unknown god is not your god, Ioudaios. I will not sit idly by while you fill my people’s heads with lies and instruct them to forsake the old ways.”
The preacher searched the crowd to find the source of the voice. In the back was a withered old crone, barely supported by staff. Her back was bent almost double and her body trembled with palsy, but there was fire in her eyes, and she regarded the preacher with nothing so much as hatred. The preacher forced a smile to his face and cleared his throat. “Grandmother, how do you know that our gods are not the same one. After all, my God created–”
“I know because I have seen my god in the flesh. Tell me, have you met yours? Can you look your god in eye? When you speak to him, does he answer you?”
“Does yours? A stone idol is not the same thing as the one true God incarnate, Grandmother.” Some of the crowd laughed at that, and the preacher allowed himself a smile. This was going better than he had dared hope. Perhaps he had a gift for speaking, like Paulus.
The ancient woman’s expression contorted in anger for a moment, but then she grinned. The preacher winced. The woman’s smile was almost as broken as the rest of her, and her few remaining teeth looked to be stained dark from red wine. “No, of course not. A statue is nothing. These gods you denounce are nothing. But if you like, you may come with me and I will introduce you to my own savior.”
The preacher laughed. “Of course, grandmother. Show me whatever charlatan disfigured beast it is you bend your knee to.” The gathered crowd laughed too, and the preacher smiled. The old woman would surely blush and turn away, or curse him and flee. The argument for the souls of the Hellenes was over, and he had won.
“Of course, my child. Follow me.” The old woman turned and disappeared through a doorway. The preacher watched her go, frowning. He stood his ground and was just about to resume his sermon when a child spoke aloud, “You don’t need to fear her. The one true God will protect you, won’t He?”
“He will,” the preacher muttered. “Of course He will! The one true God protects all who believe in Him!”
The preacher stepped through the doorway and into some kind of storage room. It seemed as if he had stepped into some ancient, chthonic temple entirely. Strange, shapeless idols lined the walls. The scent of turned earth filled the air. Darkness lurked in the corners of the room like a skulking animal. The preacher swallowed, called out. “Where did you go, Grandmother? Surely you didn’t leave the temple completely?”
“Here, my child! Down here!”
The preacher turned his head towards the sound of the old woman’s voice. It seemed to come from the darkness itself, but as he squinted, the shadows resolved themselves into another doorway with steps leading down. The preacher took a deep breath. “The one true God protects me,” he whispered to himself. He stepped forward, his eyes slowly adjusting to the gloom. There was a faint light bobbing far below him, a torch held by someone descending a staircase.
“Grandmother,” the preacher called out. “Are you so eager to inter yourself within the earth?” But she gave no response. “The one true God protects me,” the preacher whispered. He repeated these words over and over with each step, a mantra born of equal parts determination and fear. But the light in the dark got no closer until at last he was upon the old woman. She stood with a sly grin on her face, the flickering torch before and a basalt door engraved with a script he had never seen before behind her. “Shall you know the unknown god, Ioudaios?”
The preacher closed his eyes. When he opened them, his expression was as hard and unyielding as the stone door the woman guarded. “Show me whatever false idol you have secreted away, Grandmother. I will look upon it, denounce it, and let all the city know of your folly.”
The old woman’s grin grew wider still. “I promise you, boy. You will find yourself praying to the unknown god before you ever speak a word against it.” She turned to the wall and activated some hidden mechanism. With a groan and a sudden rush of wind, the basalt door slid into the ground. “Enter, my child. Enter and see.”
There was nothing to see but darkness. The room was an inky black without even the light of a candle or a torch to illuminate. The preacher stepped forward and stood still, waiting for his eyes to adjust and reveal to him whatever the Hellenes had hidden away in the depths of the city, whatever secrets they kept even from their fellow citizens. But the darkness never changed, not even after many minutes of silence and staring. “Well?” he said. “Where is this–”
A jewel appeared floating in the air, a strange red-gold that was neither ruby nor topaz. And then another and another. They winked in and out of existence. A few disappearing and others appearing to replace them with every passing second.
“What–” the preacher began, but more jewels than before appeared, a sea of them spaced haphazardly throughout the air like stars in the night sky. At last, the preacher understood what was before him. The blackness was not shadow, but some enormous creature that filled the room with its bulk. There were not jewels before him, but eyes. More eyes even than the mythical Argus. But Argus was a giant with a body like a man. Argus did not twist and writhe like a nest of vipers. He did not have mouths all over his body, great gaping holes like a leech’s sucker with teeth. Argus was myth, and the unknown god was even now focusing all of its shining eyes on the preacher, even now wrapping thick ropy cords around his arms and legs and pulling him towards its waiting slavering mouths.
The preacher screamed for an eternity, first in animal terror and next for mercy and finally simply out of agony. But the old woman paid him no mind. She simply activated the mechanism once more and turned away as the basalt door slid back into place. The climb back up the steps and into the light of day was long and painful, but she laughed softly to herself the entire way.
All who met the unknown god prayed to it, she mused. So many prayers, and none of them ever answered.