A little introductory monologue/fiction bit for a setting I'm working on. (which can basically be summed up as "colonialism + giant robots").
"Our gods left us long ago," the elders grumble when they think they aren’t heard, looking around furtively for the veiled priests and priestesses of the Dreaming God, for anyone at all who might object, "No, not left: they were murdered." As a child, I used to like to listen to the fragments of their whispers, their stories, as nothing more than made-up stories, nothing real about them to me: why should they be? The only gods I knelt to was the Dreaming God, the only names I knew one of His Ninety-Nine Names, and I was bathed in the sea as a small child to return anew, or so I always heard at the temple.
Mother never let me listen long, when she caught me, grabbed me by the ear and scolded me not to listen to those stories. I grew up with the stories that she told me, but she never told me anything about the gods who came before. There’s a lot she didn’t tell me, I know now, that I didn’t know growing up, when I was small and my mother the most beautiful woman in the world and my father the bravest man there ever was.
She wanted me to be raised in Father’s traditions, raised in his ways, and so I was. She never taught me how to speak the language of her people, though I learned a few phrases here and there, because she didn’t want anything of them in me. Hard enough, I know now, to be as I was, when my father had gone against all propriety and tradition and married her, too brown to ever be part of his people but too much his to ever be part of hers.
("Hold your head high," she taught me, "No matter what they say," and I heard all the whispers, especially once I was older. The whispers from all sides, calling them traitors, that a high-caste daughter of the islands married the second son of a bone-pale aristocrat, that he’d married beneath him, that she had, may the sea refuse her ashes and the earth her blood-)
I didn’t know the secrets she’d kept. I didn’t know, until my mother died of the lingering fever in the rainy season, and my father gave me the things she’d wanted me to keep. Among her jewelry was a small lacquered box that I’d never seen before, though I’d played with all her jewelry as a little girl, dress-up games when I tried to be as beautiful and serene as my mother and always failed. My father handed me the box the very last of all, and gave me such a look over his heavy glass spectacles.
"She would have wanted you to have this, " he said, and I didn’t recognize the weight in his voice at first, solemn as my father is, but I know now though I’ve never questioned him, that he knew just what was in that box. That he had to have known all along, and still gave it to me. "Keep it safe. "
I resisted the urge to peek, despite the fact that (or so my mother said) I was always as curious as a kitten, until I was safely in my room, alone, having sent my maid from me. I opened the box, and nestled in careful wrappings was a small tile. When I unwrapped it with shaking fingers, I saw the more than simply beautiful face of a man, dark of skin and dark of hair, painted on the tile - the icon- with flawless precision and care, the most precious of materials used in its creation, and nearly dropped it. Someone in the past had: the tile was cracked slightly, the only imperfection in the whole piece.
One of the things that I did know, from my lessons with the veiled priests, was that the Dreaming God was not to be depicted, not to be called, not to be spoken of without veils. His True Name was not for any to know, though His Ninety-Nine Names were the first I had learned as a child, before I was even allowed to pray. The sacred calligraphy of the gods that had come before had been smashed, the icons rendered into so much dust underfoot, and yet I was holding one in my hand.
I did not know what to do: I knew not to ask my father, nor the priests, nor anyone else that I might know. Instead, I simply hid it away, holding my breath against the idea of anyone finding it: perhaps it might have stayed there, box gathering dust for another woman’s lifetime, except that unlike my mother, who had set down the burden, I would, in the end, pick it back up.
It hadn’t been my intention, of course: more an accident the first time, really. In the southern jungles lived a people that were determined to be independent, even if it killed them: the army had been sent against them once already, sent their Manifests against six hundred men, women, and children, killing every single one. Steam, steel, and stolen magic against spears and blowguns and fragile bones.
The White Lady had ordered capture or kill, if they could not be caged: her commanders only heard the last. And again deployed against another group of these fiercely proud people: this time, however, I’d seen them go, and my heart couldn’t take it, as I knelt with the box clutched to my chest. I couldn’t let them die, I couldn’t, and the god sealed inside the tile heard the prayer I had not made and found me worthy.
"Our gods are dead", the elders say (and for the man who betrayed them, may the sky lose his name, may the sea refuse his ashes and the earth his blood-) "dead but never quite dying." I hadn’t understood what their whispers had meant until I called forth the god from the icon, had myself surrounded by great armor of meteoric iron, floating in the midst of it though I wasn’t conscious of my own body, felt it breathe to match my breaths.
I did not pilot a god: I was a god. I did not control the sky and the storm: I was the sky and storm, tearing through steel frames like they were nothing, speaking in tongues of lightning and thunder as I sent the remaining Manifest pilots fleeing for their lives. And then, after, I was myself again, and wept with the enormity of it all, for I knew now what it was like to be something greater than myself, knew the burden that my mother had given me, and knew what I had to do.
Our gods are dead: but what was left of them, their blood, their unbeating hearts, were placed inside what had once been their offering-vessels, giant armor crafted from meteoric iron, powered by magic stronger than what had been stolen from us, stronger than the visions of their seers, concealed inside the smallest of tile icons. The icons are destroyed, but the Icons yet remain, and the gods only live again while they are piloted, while pilots like me become their avatars.
I couldn’t have chosen anything else, after, but to fight: I couldn’t go back to how it was, though I still live as my father’s daughter, still walk between two worlds, neither of which accept me, and it is the furthest thing from easy. There’s still too much that I don’t know. Will never know. I don’t even know the name of the god who I become, however briefly.
"I’m sorry," I told him once, the first time I heard his voice in my head: I couldn’t understand what he was saying, echoes of a long-dead ghost in a language I can barely speak, pressing my hand against a body of meteoric iron that hisses with the blood of a slain god through metal veins, "I’m sorry I don’t know your legend. I’m sorry I don’t know anything about you."
I still don’t know that much about him, even now, even after subsuming myself and my memories to channel him: being him isn’t the same as knowing him, and I may never know him, will never know him the way my ancestors did. But I’m all he has now, to keep him alive even if only in a small way, even if-
There’s a lot of things I don’t know. There’s a lot of things I will never know.
I don’t know, if after, there will be a place for me and all the children like me, in the new world that we’re fighting to build. I don’t know if I’ll ever have a place, anywhere. I don’t know what the shape of that future will be, no one can even agree on it, but it will be a future we’ve chosen, not had chosen for us.
And maybe, maybe, if we can keep the gods alive, even if only for a little longer, even if only something of them, we can keep ourselves alive, too.
-Lady Esperanza del Corazon