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New Gods -- fiction by Kira Hawthorne

And that night, watched over by the moon and twinkling stars, we swore to be better than our forefathers, every person and god who had come before us. We swore to each other that we would not let the world fall further into disrepair, we would not give up on all the beautiful things that make life worth living. Our mind’s eyes were filled with pictures of grisly wars, begging hands, empty hearts and homes filled with people who refused to care about anything beyond themselves. We took a knife to our palms and clasped each other’s hands, hearts full of righteous fury. We would change the world, we declared. We’d show everyone a better way, a better path to take. But we knew there was only one way to bring down the gods of old.

You make new gods. And you teach them what it means to be human.

We met in secret, night after night, in a secluded cave beside a lake. It was far enough from the town that we wouldn’t be disturbed, but close enough that we could go between the two without issue. By day, we found pieces of humanity—the gift of flowers from a new lover, tears shed when a father dies, an old cloak made with linen and love—and by night, we wove those pieces together into something divine. We wanted to capture every fragment of humanity. Everything broken and beautiful, everything lonely and loved. Each one of us gave pieces of ourselves to the six new gods: sweat, blood, tears. Our stories went into them, too, and our hearts. We wanted to show the gods what it means to love, to laugh, to lose. Most of all, we wanted them to know the goodness the world has in it. There is what is holy in the tiniest moments; the gods of before had abandoned that.

Just before dawn each day, we left and stole back to our homes, letting our paths diverge while the sun kept watch. No one could know what we were building by the lake’s waters, or else they would destroy our work. We knew instinctively that those in power were not to be trusted. But we didn’t know how common folk would react. Would they jump at the chance of a better world? Or would they seize the opportunity to climb up in society and turn us in, destroying the new gods not yet fully formed?

Weeks passed, and our gods began to take shape. We began to whisper their names to their unfinished bodies, marking each one as unique. Amari for the young neither-maiden-nor-man, destined to be a bringer of light and new growth. Safir for the man whose domain would be understanding, platonic relationships and trust. The gods took on unique forms, varied in gender, shape and colour. But despite their outward differences, their cores were all the same. Love, we said, placing trinkets of our own inside their chests. Give, we asked, turning their palms upwards. Take what divinity there is in humankind, and embody that. Show the world how beautiful life can be.

But our secrecy could not last forever.

It happened one day without anyone’s noticing: a maid for one of the rich merchants saw us exit the cave in the early hours of morning. We had stayed later than we meant to, trying to finish the gods’ forms before the new moon when we would bring them to life. She saw us while she was emptying a chamber pot, and grew suspicious. Perhaps another maid, on another day, would have left us be, but not this one. We can only guess that she was so tired of serving, she would have done anything to get ahead.

While we scattered to go about our days as usual, she crept into the cave and discovered the bodies of our gods. Even half-finished, their divinity was unmistakable. She immediately ran back into town and told everyone who would listen about what she found.

Soon, those in power heard word of our new gods. They were angry, as angry as we were the night we swore to create divinity anew, and they gathered the townspeople to storm the cave. They found our fledgling gods, half-wrought from scraps of fabric and clay, and tore to pieces what they couldn’t set aflame. Gone were the fresh flowers from new lovers, gone were the tears shed for a dead father, gone was the old cloak made with love, and every other piece of divine humanity we had patched together. Our gods were all too human; they were destroyed far more easily than they were made.

And then they found us, not because the maid identified us, but because we were the only ones to hold back when the mob entered the cave. We could only watch as they destroyed our work, our hope for a better future. They found us, and they named us, and they put us on trial for heresy.

It took several weeks for the powerful to put together a council for our trials. During that intervening time, they kept us isolated in cells and basements across the town, so we couldn’t communicate with each other. I spent those weeks praying to our dead gods in silence. The guards watching me tried to make me speak; they beat me and denied me food. I’d never been much for religion until the night our work began, but in those moments, I imagined myself a priest and held my silence.

When the time for our trial came, I was weak and hungry. I was shuffled into the courtroom in chains with the rest of us. Casting a look around, I saw my companions were as weak as I was, as exhausted. This was heartening: though in our naivete, we had never discussed what to do should we be discovered I saw they were as dedicated to our new gods as I was.

The judge was a balding old man from a city to the west. He was dressed entirely in black, against which his pale skin glowed. He looked down at us from the dais, lip curled in a sneer. The guards behind us shoved us down onto cold stone benches. None of us were strong enough to put up much resistance, but still, we did not say a word in protest.

All the townspeople filed in behind us, jeering and cursing. Even our parents, our siblings joined in. They knew too well that if they didn’t publicly distance themselves from us, they would be punished with us. I didn’t blame them.

So we all bowed our heads, letting their harsh voices pass over us. The judge banged his gavel twice, and the room quieted immediately.

“We are here today to decide the fates of these twelve heretics who attempted to create new gods,” he proclaimed in a nasal tone. At this, the room erupted in shouts again. He banged the gavel again, and the noise subsided.

“We found them and their half-formed monstrosities in a cave ten minutes walk from here. A parlour maid, Miss Allie Howels, saw them leaving at the cave just after dawn three weeks and two days ago. While she did not know what they were doing, she took the initiative and investigated their hideout.” The judge paused, nose wrinkling in distaste. “What she found was a series of abominations—six in total—that are an affront to our values as a modern society. These heathens before you were trying to make gods of their own.”

At this, whispers overtook the courtroom. The guards behind us shoved our heads down until our foreheads knocked against the wooden panels separating us from the front of the room. While none of us spoke a word, we exchanged anxious glances with each other. It was clear the judge would grant us no mercy. The punishment for heresy was death by public beheading.

“Miss Howels informed the townspeople immediately, as all righteous people would do. Almost everyone in this good town joined her in destroying the idols in that cave. Everyone, except for these twelve in front of you today. This alone is not enough to convict someone of a crime. However, when asked to decry the false gods while detained, they said nothing. This is what they are on trial for today; this is what they must be punished for if they don’t renounce their works.” From his seat on the stage, the judge gazed down at us, meeting each of our eyes in turn. His judgement-filled gaze burned into us, and there wasn’t one of us who did not tremble.

“Who among you will renounce your “gods”?” he demanded. “Who among you will return to the path of the good and true? If you recant, you will have a handful of months in prison. If you do not, you will be beheaded in the town square immediately after we adjourn here.”

The room went silent. None of us spoke. I saw a few of my fellows—my friends—bow their heads as if in prayer.

The judge stood. “I will ask again: who among you will recant? Who among you will swear fealty to the true gods?”

At that, I raised my head and got to my feet. All eyes in the room turned to me; everyone held their breath, waiting.

“I will,” I said softly, my voice barely making its way across the room. My companions, startled, turned to glare at me; some cursed me loudly, only for the guards to push their heads down once more. The townspeople behind us snickered quietly at the spectacle.

“Very good,” the old justice replied, sounding satisfied. “Come to the front, then, and vow to follow the gods until the end of your days.”

As I made my way up to the front, those I had worked with night after night jostled and tripped me, hating my cowardice. But I kept my head low and did not respond, not even when one of them sent me sprawling to the floor. Again, the townspeople laughed, and again my companions cursed me, and still, the judge looked down on me as if as a god from above.

I stumbled my way to the front, then fell to my knees—not out of reverence, but because I was too weak to stand. The weeks of being denied food had worn on me; I could not stay upright. A guard followed me all the while, holding the end of the chain around my neck in his hands.

“I swear…” I began, voice soft and trembling.

“Speak up,” the judge ordered. “So everyone can hear.”

I took a shallow breath, and found my voice.

“I swear fealty to the true gods,” I said, projecting enough to reach the back of the hall. “I swear fealty to Amari, Safir and Emeric, deities of new growth, understanding and strength.”

Whispers overtook the room again, the unfamiliar names confusing the crowd before me. The justice seemed frozen in surprise, and even the guard behind me let my chains go slack. But my companions, who had, just moments ago, hated me, looked up at me with new light in their eyes.

“I pledge myself to Senet, the goddess of earth and stone, Demos, god of the seas and skies, and Elora, goddess of fire and freedom. To these six gods, the true gods, who we brought into the world, I swear myself to, and I vow to follow until the end of my days.”

It was like a spell broke. The judge came back to himself with a start and banged his gavel, trying to regain control of the room. The townspeople were screaming for my beheading, but my companions were quiet. I met each of their eyes as the guard behind me pushed me down to the floor. They smiled sadly at me, for they knew I had sealed all our fates.

My guard grabbed a muzzle and forced it onto my face so I could no longer speak. He pulled roughly at my chains; the judge directed him to bring me to the town square. I was dragged onto the small wooden platform in the centre of the space; there was not room for all of us at once, but I was to be first.

I could have struggled, perhaps. I could have cried out, fought back. But I knew it was futile, so I did the only thing I hoped could matter: I prayed. I prayed to our dead gods, their form taken away before we could give them true life. I prayed to the pieces of humanity we had stitched into them, to the blood and tears and sweat we shed while crafting them. Most of all, I prayed to the divinity in humankind to save me. To save us all.

Watching the people I grew up surrounded by screaming like animals cemented my faith in the gods we had made. How can we so eagerly clamour for the death of another, just to save our own skins? The world needed new gods; I saw it too clearly now.

It seemed we hadn’t been expected to recant, for an executioner soon stepped up to the stage. My head was forced down onto a wooden block; the man with the scythe took position behind me. I could feel the eyes of the town on me, everyone from the youngest children to the mothers and their parents. My family stood to the side, shaking. My mother met my eyes, sorrow and pain clear in her expression. But all were quiet in the face of my death.

My companions, too, were quiet. They watched me with clear eyes, even as they were made to kneel in the mud. Looking back at them, I hoped it was worth it. That our too-human gods were worth their lives. They were worth mine, at least.

The judge stood beside me, opposite the executioner. “The crime for heresy is public beheading. Those before you have not recanted, so they will die as heretics, every last one.”

I prayed fervently in my last moments, hoping some god would see fit to rescue me. But all that came with the blow of the blade was a whisper on the wind.

“We accept your pledge, O creator of gods.” Amari? Their voice was just as I had imagined it, melodious, yet commanding. “Now go forth as our vessel, and show the world that we were not destroyed when our forms were. Go forth, and show that we live.”


 

Kira Hawthorne is a second-year biophysics student with a passion for storytelling, science, and the places they intersect. While often found conducting research of her own, much of her time is spent reading, baking, or with any of her three pets. In 2022, her short story, Starfire, won 2nd place in the grade ten category of the Polar Expressions short story competition.



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