We are descended from a powerful people. So it is said. The most powerful our world has ever known. Their might unmatched. Their domain unending. Their eyes all-seeing.
I am nothing next to them. I am a blade of grass underfoot. A mayfly blinking in and out of existence.
But today I will discover if there are forces in the world mightier than the gods.
For today is the day I bring them down.
I lost my faith in the gods long before the mountain began to rumble.
It was not the doing of a single moment, but many moments.
Moments of doubt.
Moments of fear.
Moments of anger.
Moments of musing. If they are so mighty, and we are their children, why would our grandest works displease them? Why should they deny us the rewards of our own labors and triumphs? Is it displeasure they feel, or something else?
I fashioned a chain of copper once for a friend to give to her daughter. It was a simple thing, a labor done with delight. When my friend saw the chain, she offered me three moon’s worth of her wages. The price was far beyond what I had asked. I had hung little stars made of yellow glass upon the chain. I explained that they could be freely removed if not desired. My friend gave no answer but the beaming smile upon her face. When next I saw her daughter, the girl’s neck was adorned with little yellow stars.
I worked a great net of gold and rubies for a cleric to give to one of the gods. It was a lavish thing. The most beautiful thing I had ever forged. I labored for a year, doing no other work, for there was no time and no vigor left to me. I lived upon the hospitality of kind friends. Anxious to be finished, fearful that the work would be rejected as unworthy, I polished every strand, every gem, until my fingers cramped and my hands trembled. My sight grew dim for all it saw was ruby and gold.
So long did I stand at my forge that even my strong leg gave way.
When the work was delivered, it was taken as tribute. I did not learn of its fate.
Seven nights prior, I reclaimed that net. It was nothing to the gods. But in my hands it would become a snare. The first act in their undoing.
We may share their blood, but we do not share their natures. May it ever be so. The curiosity that they say is such a danger to us, such a persisting flaw in our poor mortal minds, is also a treasure. One the gods do not possess. They have no need to be curious. For the gods know all.
But if that were truly so, they would have known I was coming.
We share their blood. The gods say this means that there is a touch of the divine in every mortal. Not enough to grant the grace and purity required to wield godly powers. But perhaps if we live lives of enough virtue and service, we might be granted some measure of favor upon our deaths.
Upon this fragile promise is built the house of hope in which thousands of faithful dwell.
We share their blood. Perhaps that means that the gods too are mortal. That none in this world are divine. And they do not understand the powers they possess and wield. For that reason, their grasp upon those powers is as tenuous as the powers themselves.
That would explain how I took them by surprise.
I reached the foot of the mountain three days ago. I have been climbing and now I can feeling its heat.
Do we not all believe in the gods when we are young? Even before I saw them with my own eyes, I did. And when I did lay my unworthy mortal eyes on my forbears, my gods, all the more did my heart belong to them. All the more did my mind swear fealty to them. All the lower did my head bow down to them.
I was a child, twelve years in the world. The procession of the gods wound through the great city. We cast the petals of our most precious flowers upon their shimmering litters. If we were fortunate, a curtain would part, just enough for their unbearable brilliance to slice through. We would shade our eyes. Though there were some who refused to look away, and they lost the use of their eyes, for mortal organs are too delicate to countenance the gods.
I once dreamed that I would dare to look upon the gods, and I would find that I was able to bear their brilliance. They would reach out to me, pretending to be surprised and bemused, and tell me that I belonged with them. That when I was born, a new god was born.
I am not the only one who had such foolish fantasies.
I stop for a moment to rest and to drink warm water from my flask.
The chains around my waist have begun to rustle. I fear they will pull me down. Still I climb.
The mountain has begun to smoke. It has begun to wake.
Still, I climb.
The mortals in the city knew what was happening. Their histories spoke of it. The mountain had been sleeping for three generations. But the last time it woke, it seared the very air, and drowned the lands around it in rivers of melted flame. It darkened the skies with choking smoke that blocked the sun and stars for many days. Ash lay upon the soil, and poisons seeped into it. Nothing would grow for many seasons.
When the scholars saw the signs, they warned the city’s leaders. The leaders sent word to the clerics, an entreaty to the gods to save them. As nature proclaimed it must do so, the mountain would wake and rage. But if the gods would delay the mountain’s waking, the people below would have time to gather what they needed, find a place to flee, and leave the city.
But when the gods responded, they gave no hope. They said they must not intervene. They gave no reason.
I could see no reason for them not to aid the people in some way. If they would not delay the mountain, or transport the people away, then at least they might aid in some humble way, by pulling a wagon perhaps. At least they might heal small wounds. At the very least, they might have encouraged the people to save themselves. But while the gods did not intervene to aid their people, they did interfere with the efforts of those who sought to preserve the lives of their fellow mortals. I could not understand why. But I have observed that the gods are often reckless in this way.
Or perhaps it is not recklessness. Perhaps it is cruelty.
So where once there was a people united in their fear of the mountain’s waking, and united in their efforts to preserve themselves, there now were those mortals who interfered as the gods interfered. They foiled the plan of theirs fellows. They blocked the paths of their fellows. The stood along the roads leading out of the city, taunting the people who fled, sometimes even driving them back into the city.
There will always be those who follow without question. But that is not faith. That is obedience.
The minds and bodies of mortals are fragile, but their souls are strong. Gods are the opposite of mortals. Gods have weak souls.
My sandals have begun to melt. My feet will soon be tested against the scorching rock of the waking mountain. A crack has formed somewhere above and to my left, and it weeps a slow and fiery tear.
The chains tied around my waist, fashioned from a net of gold and ruby, have gone still. Tied to the ends are the twelve mighty gods.
I heard a young girl question a cleric about this strange habit of the gods once. Why did they seem to intervene when not needed and refrain to intervene when they were needed? The cleric explained that the ways of the gods only seemed mysterious because mortals could not see the entirety of time.
If the gods truly possessed such a power, the cleric’s answer might suffice.
She was admonished, this girl. Her youth protected her from worse, but if she persisted in asking such questions as she reached maturity, she would be disfavored by the gods.
And those who are disfavored by the gods must be forsaken by their fellows.
Did we not all hear the news of the sculptor whose statues of the gods were so beautiful, so smooth and glowing, that they rivaled the beauty of the gods themselves?
What happened to that poor fellow?
He displeased the gods. But perhaps it was not displeasure they felt. Perhaps it was something else. Perhaps it was envy. For in our short and shackled lives, many of us mortals do dazzling deeds.
But never has mortal power been a match for godly power.
So it has come to be that many mortals hide their knowledge and talents in the presence of the gods and their clerics.
The young are taught to do so.
I was taught to do so.
It is a lesson I have heeded to this day, though I may soon be a match for the gods.
Not long ago, I learned a strange and troubling truth.
I was born inside this mountain that I now climbed, forged in its molten belly, even as mortal beings are forged within their mothers.
I do not share blood with the gods. My blood is my own. For I am not descended from them.
I am one of them.
I will say nothing more about it, for I would that the gods be forgotten, buried, and if they lived at all, that they lived only in stories. I don’t know if the gods hobbled my leg, or if that is how I was born. It was the one thing that made me certain that I was mortal.
I climb quickly now, even without the use of that leg. It is only one thing that makes me certain I will not be mortal much longer.
Godly powers mean nothing if one does not know how to wield them. I don’t yet remember how. But there is one great power that I know how to use, for I have always used it, since I can remember.
The power of forging.
I sought other means, other ways. There are none. Those who have tried have failed.
Yes, others have tried before me.
If there was a scepter that held all their power, then someone would have shattered it long ago.
If there was a potion that granted them their power, then someone would have discovered it long ago.
If there was some machine that worked their power, then someone would have broken it long ago.
The gods claim they were given their powers and their radiance by the stars, who fondly watch over them still.
Then why is it, I wonder, that we do not pray to the stars.
Not all light is good, as not all shadow is bad. The radiance of the gods is a crushing light. Brighter than the truth. We can see nothing else. They cast no shadows because they have no substance.
It is we who give them life. The towering monuments in the great city were not built by the hands of gods. The golden jewels upon their arms and necks were not hammered and worked by the gods. The poems that lift the burdens from wretched mortal souls were not writ by the gods.
It is we who create.
I say “we,” for I am still mortal in this moment. But that will not be true for long. I must hurry. I am only halfway up the mountain, and already there are flows of molten rock spilling past me and arcing around me.
Three drops fell upon my arm. Pain seized me. and I gripped the rock harder and stopped moving. I feared I would slip off and fall to the earth.
Soon, but not yet.
My lungs have filled with smoke. But I can feel them shifting and simmering in my chest, sending the smoke back out. I blow black smoke from my nostrils and my mouth. I can smell it. I can feel it filling my lungs again and again.
It no longer harms me.
It feels familiar, soft, and warm, and comforting.
I did not choose to become mortal. I remember that much now. I could have chosen to remain mortal. But if I did, I would die with the rest of them.
I sought other means, other ways. There are none.
To defeat the gods, I must become a god.
And when the gods fall, I too must fall.
We must fall so far that we can never rise again.
The work must be done when I am halfway between mortal and god. For once I become immortal, my soul will grow weak, and the other gods will easily corrupt me.
I have reached the top now. The fabrics I had worn upon my body, woven by clever and nimble fingers, mortal fingers, have long burned away. I am cloaked in black smoke. The smoke is soft against my hard skin, skin turned to rock and flint.
I pulled myself up and stood upon the rim, gazing down into the hollow bubbling pit of the mountain’s belly.
The weight of gods was unbearable when I started, so heavy that with every inch gained, I had to stop and rest.
But now they are as light as twelve pillows.
I could have dived into the mountain, without another word to the others.
I felt their weight go slack, but the chains around my waist writhed and went taut.
I had suspected they were plotting some way to free themselves.
There was a time that none of them would have even bothered to try if they were caught in one of my traps. Perhaps they hoped that because I was still mortal when I forged the chains, they would not hold.
It seemed they were right. Arrayed around me in a circle, standing upon the rim of the mountain, the gods were free of their bonds, yet they still held the other ends of their chains.
One of them began to speak.
He explained that they had allowed themselves to be dragged up the mountain, even in full view of the people below, because their plan was to feed me to the mountain. By reflex, I would calm the mountain, soothe it back to sleep. The gods would then descend, resplendent, and tell the people that they discovered a villain among their midst, an evil god whom they had imprisoned and wiped from mortal memory. But the evil was too great, and regrettably, the gods had to do what they most reluctantly did not wish to do. So they destroyed the evil god.
They destroyed me.
If my body was still mortal, I would indeed die. If I wasn’t, then I must still remain within the mountain.
For if ever I tried to escape, I would disturb the mountain, as I did when I was first born. Then I would be the one who brought doom to the mortal people below.
And so with their combined powers, the gods threw me down into the mountain.
I fell into the red-hot pool of melted rock.
And I did not perish.
My eyes and ears could reach farther now. They could reach through the mountain.
And so I saw the gods descend, resplendent. As the mountain calmed, soothed by my presence, and my powers, I heard them speak to the mortal people below, and say what they had planned to say.
Even when I was god, I learned not to boast. For if ever I tried, I would be reminded of my…imperfect body.
But it was not until I was mortal that I learned to truly be humble.
The people were saved. It did not matter to me who they thanked.
But I did mean to ensure that it was not the gods they thanked.
The enchanted chains of gold and ruby were not the great work that I would forge for the gods.
I had hoped, foolishly and strangely, in a deep and distant part of my heart that the gods would somehow repent.
That they would see the smoke streaming and the flaming rock erupting, and they would at last choose to save the mortals who worshipped them.
But the greater part of my heart, the part that sorrowed, feared that they would do just as they did.
I feared and I hoped.
For when they cast me into the mountain, they cast me into my first forge.
Mortal forges can create wondrous things.
But my forge…perhaps the gods have forgotten what my forge can make.
I began the work even I listened to the gods speak to the mortal people.
I grew tired.
I thought perhaps a remnant of mortality still clung to me. But that was not so.
It was only that my creations were the greatest work I had ever forged. They were of such brilliance as to outshine the gods themselves. They were so light that they rose into the sky.
I covered them in smoke, black smoke that still rose from the mountain, to hide their light and their rising high, high into the sky. Once they were high enough, they become visible to the people below, who gasped at the big bright new stars that had suddenly appeared. It seemed an omen to them, a good omen.
Then the new stars began to fall.
The people trembled in fear. But while they had fled from the rumbling and erupting mountain, they stood frozen now.
For what could any mortal or god do if the stars themselves were descending?
When one of the gods dodged a falling star, the star struck the ground in a burst of black smoke. Another star struck a tree, and again burst into the smoke. Another struck a dog, who sneezed and barked at the smoke. All were unharmed. And so when another of my creations fell toward that same god, he tried to catch it. But the star caught him instead, latching to his hand, spilling molten light down his arm, bursting into black smoke. This time, my star did cause harm.
The god’s hand was gone. And from the stump, he bled. And his blood was red, red as mortal blood.
A star then struck a child and did no harm.
The gods fled. But the stars followed, as I had made them to do.
One of the leaders of the mortal people spoke.
“The stars are angry with the gods,” the leader said, “for the gods destroyed one of their own. They misused their great powers.”
“I believe they lied,” said another. “They did not save us from the mountain. And they did not destroy one of their own. There are only twelve gods. There was no evil thirteenth. The one we saw who bound and dragged them up the mountain must have been a star.”
“We must forsake the gods then, before the stars grow angry with us!”
“No,” said the leader. “We must forsake the gods because they forsake us.”
The ones who spoke already doubted the gods, as I once had, before my doubts turned to truth.
The fragile faith of many was broken that day. But not of all.
For not all were pleased to see the gods fall.
I yet live. But I will not again emerge from this mountain. I will not sear mortal eyes with the force of my radiance—a radiance unearned.
Perhaps someday, mortals too will gain great might. Perhaps this might will corrupt. Perhaps not. For mortals share our blood, but not our natures. May it ever be so.
The gods were always doomed.
But you mortals, you need not be.
Copyright © 2022 Nila L. Patel