Epimethea was eleven years old the first time she encountered a Never. So very young. She wasn’t called Epimethea yet, of course. She still had the boring and ordinary name her parents gave her.
“Diya!” her mother called up from the bottom of the stairs. “You get down here this minute!”
“No!” Diya cried as she marched into her room. “I’m never coming down again!” She slammed the door.
“Fine,” she heard her mother’s muffled voice say through the door. “Do what you like. Do I care? I do not care.”
Diya threw herself onto her bed and buried her face in her pillow. Tears threatened at the edges of her eyes, and she cursed them. She wouldn’t cry again. Crying was for weak people. Stupid people.
“Stupid people like me,” she muttered into her pillowcase.
“Tsk Tsk. Utterances like that, once spoken, sometimes come true,” said a voice from behind her. Diya squeaked in alarm and spun around.
There was no one there.
“I’m must be hearing things,” she said into the empty room.
“You are,” the voice came again. “You are hearing my voice.”
Diya’s eyes widened and she leapt to her feet.
“You can’t see me?” said the voice. Diya didn’t recognize it. It was an adult’s voice. Male, maybe, but soft. Like the speaker’s vocal chords were made of silk.
Diya reached out to her bedside table and grabbed the iron necklace hanging from one of the pegs.
“If you’re some kind of bhut or something,” she said, “I’m warning you. I have protection.”
The voice laughed, a sound like velvet claws tracing their way up Diya’s spine. “You need no protection from me,” he said. “You’re the one who’s dangerous. You still can’t see me?”
“No,” Diya said as she backed up against the wall. “You’re invisible.”
“Another attempt, then.”
A splintered mass of light burst into Diya’s vision, blinding her. There was a strained, flapping sound, like heavy wings beating against thickened air. Diya rubbed her eyes with her hands. She opened them slowly. Reluctantly.
And there he was.
“Was I successful?” he asked. “Can you see me?”
She nodded. She could see him, standing there. By no close margin the strangest thing she had ever seen in her entire life.
He stood about six feet tall, in the rough shape of a man. Or at least, a person. Diya couldn’t tell if it was a boy or a girl, or even a human. He had arms and legs, but it looked like he didn’t have to. Like they were just a trick of the light, and any moment they might flutter away. His entire form was silver, and it glimmered with colors like a sheen of oil on a puddle of water. The silver substance rippled and flowed. The only solid things about him were the ragged, scaly wings that jutted out of his legs and from the sides of his head. The quicksilver of his form surged and frothed around the wings as if in protest of their rigidity.
Diya gasped in realization. Mercury.
“Are you…” she stammered, “are you Hermes? Like, Hermes the god?”
The man laughed. It was strange, since he didn’t quite have a face. It flowed between human features and those of different animals. A bird, some kind of dog, a giant spider. Diya stared.
“That is one of my Lies, yes. But a god? Perhaps not.”
“You call them names, we call them Lies. The namer is the poet is the liar is the betrayer. If you wish to call me something that is not a lie, call me Messenger.”
Diya nodded, slowly. “What are you doing here? This is all, I mean, is any of this real? Am I dreaming or something?”
“Come now,” said Messenger. “You are clever enough to answer that. Do you feel like you’re dreaming?”
Diya tensed her muscles, which was her usual way of telling if she was awake when she fell asleep in class. She was awake now. She already knew that. She was just looking for a boring explanation. Most of the time, when something strange happened, it had a really boring explanation.
“I’m awake,” she said. She didn’t know whether to be excited or terrified. She settled for the middle: curious.
“So you are,” said Messenger. “So now the question becomes, what am I doing here?”
Diya furrowed her brow in thought. “I…summoned you here?”
Messenger laughed. “Now why would you think that?”
“Well, most of the time,” she said, glancing over at the books on her shelf, “when a strange creature comes into a kid’s room and doesn’t eat her, that means she summoned it. Did I? Summon you?” She looked up at him.
“Indeed you did,” said Messenger. He spread his arms out to his sides and gave a formal curtsey. “You did, and you will. I am always the first, and always the last.”
“The first to Never, and the last to Always,” said Messenger. One of his head-wings bent down and sank itself into the pool at his center. When it emerged, it clutched something in its enfolded feathers. “You have summoned me, because you have need. I have come, because you are the Acolyte, and it is time for the Work to begin.”
Messenger’s gaze caught Diya’s, and his face locked into human form. As he grinned, his mouth spread up his cheek bones, and past his ears, all the way up to the top of his head. Part of Diya wanted to shudder, but she was just too fascinated.
The strange being’s wing stretched out towards Diya and opened slowly. The feathers unfolded like fingers to reveal a dancing multi-colored flame. Diya gasped. Without realizing what she was doing she reached out to grab it. Then she caught Messenger’s gaze again and stopped herself.
“Go ahead,” he said. “Take it.”
Diya’s hand wrapped around the flame. A warm, gentle tickle ran up her arm and spread through her body. The scent of honeysuckle and new paper filled the air, and she tasted strawberries and fennel seeds and cardamom.
“What is it?” she asked.
“Look for yourself,” said Messenger.
Hesitantly, Diya opened her fingers. There, in the palm of her hand, lit as if by its very own shaft of sunlight, was a blue, plastic, erasable pen.