The Plea of the Fallen
I am not grounded, though many call me so, be them the devout or the atheistic.
I am not grounded, for the grounded reject the spirituality of Kulex altogether- reject gods and worship and spirituality as though they are but fleeting falsehoods only meant to cause harm.
Perhaps it is because I was chosen Ascendant that I do not follow them- that the days leading up to my flight from Avos were days of joy and spiritual connection with my fellows I suspect I will never again experience- perhaps it is simply that I find solace in the spiritual still, where others cannot, too scarred by the terrible things we have done in its name, to see its worth.
We have done so many terrible things.
When I was chosen by our Stargazer Cuixtli, I was elated. Who would not be, when Star Dream and Stargazer and Kluex himself declares you worthy to fly with the Gods, in the heart of all creation? To swim amongst starlight, to watch over and guide your peoples through the ages? To heal the sick, carry the dead, welcome those who feared and doubted into the Aether with open wings? And at the cost of only this fleeting, mortal life, you would touch the wings of a Gods.
There was no greater joy to us.
The Temple was a place of beauty, serenity- a place of tranquil spirituality that could not be broken but for our own doubts. I held none about my fate, about the flight from the tower that would kill my mortal form- Only for the alter, where blood of noble enemies flowed. Was it truly honorable to sacrifice those who would not go willingly? Would their essence joining Kulex in the eternal truly absolve them of their mortal concerns and lost days? I wondered, though none would join my queries, and I prayed to Kulex for guidance and the joy of those unwillingly sent to him.
May they rest easy now.
We spent all of our time in the Temple- anointed daily, we prayed and chanted and danced, eating and drinking elixirs of many-colored dreams, our souls drifting higher into the sky to send our hopes to Kulex. Beyond this, we trained- obstacle courses, races, challenges and trials to build us as close to the visage of Kulex as possible. In the gladiatorial arena, we spared, every acolyte joyous even as bruises graced their skin and cuts ruined their feathers.
After every nine days of this: The Feast.
Attendants come in the late hours of the setting sun, help us bathe in healing waters that make our hearts feel light as air. We are dried in the light of the scared flames, and they anoint our feathers with pine oil, thick as such that they are lacquered under its weight, as its heady scent makes us feel as if graced to live amongst the pure air of the highest mountains, close to Kulex as we can be while still flightless. They buff and polish our beaks, so that they act as mirrors for the fires glow, and leaf our crests feathers with gold. In the light of the dying sun, we become as Sunborn, shining and resplendent.
Then the feasting begins.
Food more than any Avian can hope for, heady with syrup and elixirs and slow-cooked-juices, and none of us had eaten so well. We eat, and dance, and speak of golden wings and long falls and our hopes of ascension: to bring the music of the Sunborn to the Grounded, to allow crops to flourish even amongst drought, to call to the dead and lead them up through the skies to Kluex.
Such lofty hopes.
The Festival began with our wake at dawn, when the Sun graces the sky first with its rays of light. Stargazer Cuixtli wakes each of us in turn, and together we pray. The attendants join us, then, and we are for a final time bathed, and anointed, and polished, and gilded amongst our crests- but now we are also dusted with gold as well, through all our feathers, to allow us to glitter as if already heavens-bound as we procession amongst the lanterns.
The crowd grows below, pride swelling in our breasts.
Stargazer Cuixtli and their lesser priests escort us in the Procession, as our peers cheer to see us go. They do not know what will become of us in time, though surely, they think the best. At the base of the Celestial Tower, the others in the Procession fall away, Stargazer Cuixtli leading only the chosen and two attendants each to its height. At the peak of the tower, we ready ourselves, and Stargazer Cuixtli speaks the words of Kluex, and we are almost brought to weeping at the beauty of the first beams of sunrise that grace the sky, at the sparkling splendor of our fellow chosen as their feathers gleam in it.
As the Sun rises, we leap. two-by-two.
We are glad to spread our wings, to greet the air, our mortal bodies falling away beneath us, to be taken, and treated, and placed in the tomb stacks, amongst the vessels of our fellow Ascendants once they land. We do not head its fate, our souls and essence rising, untethered, above, free to soar and join Kluex as part and whole and wind in his voice. I felt no unease when I climbed the tower- no doubt as I puffed out my chest above the precipice, acolyte wings flaring with my shoulders movements- no fear as I leapt, into the sky, into the arms of Kulex- not even as I continued to fall, without Ascending- not even curiosity, confusion, questioning-
None of this graced my mind.
I was ready to die, thankful for it, for only the chance of the Aethers grace, the chance to truly fly, without false wings.
The ground took me then, and there was pain. The cracking of limbs as they hit, the scratches of hay and dirt, the breath leaving my chest and bones and leaving me gasping, as if drowned, as if buried alive in the tomb. A terrible pain racked my head, the Sunrise blinding my eyes, and as feathers flew about from my plumage and my wings my mind suddenly cleared of all thoughts- as if touched by Kulex himself, I suddenly could become more than just a pained mortal body, fallen to the ground below- and it was then I began to question, to wonder-
Had I been chosen again, then?
To lead from the mortal realm, to become Stargazer and lead the next ascension? Were my fellow Ascendants watching me from their spirits, above, cheering my fate? I looked above and saw nothing. I looked below and saw horror. My fellow Ascendants, blessed be their souls and may they fly in another life, crumpled below me in bloody heaps. Death was not unexpected, but this…
Some- they were still alive.
Terror, horror, despair, grief- emotions foreign to my Ascension struck me then, seeing them broken upon the ground, still weakly breathing. I cradled them, and in hushed, pained tones, they told me many things- their fears, their doubts, their questions- why had Kluex abandoned them to this fate? Had they not been devout enough for even a quick and painless death? What had they done wrong, what had they harmed?
No one, i said, nothing- you have done nothing-
Nothing, I said as much, a revelation settling in my shoulders that I did not even yet realize I had achieved.
There was no reason for Kluex to do this, no reason to take the unwilling, no reason to shun the Grounded, to curse the devout. There had been a terrible mistake. We had done a terrible thing, in our quest of faith. We had become arbitrators of cruelties in our quest for the heavens. We had cursed our own to sullen fates, fear and despair, shunned our fellows over but a crisis of faith and morality- and for what?
There are no gods, here, now. There is only us.
As their final breath left them, to join the sky, I rose from the dirt. Pained, broken too, but strong. I had trained to Ascend, and now that training would allow me to Ascend not to heaven, but to the height of truth- to scream it from the tower itself to any that would hear it. Our gods would not want this. That thought guided me as I stormed the tower, my broken wings trailing behind me.
I have Stargazer Cuixtli to thank for my escape.
As I raved in front of the attendants, in tears, fearful of what we had become- something began to shine in their eyes, a passion of faith I had seen only in their speeches of Kulex before- and they called for sacrifices. Captured warriors were brought before the alter in the Temple, their hands tied, and they touched each of their heads with the sacred anointment as they spoke of Kulex’s will.
They cut their bonds.
Chaos erupted in the Temple, guards, attendants, priests alike scrambling to control the crowd of captured foes now free, and in it all Stargazer Cuixtli and I shared a gaze, one of faith, of compassion, of understanding: go with Kulex, and may you fly far. I rallied the captured, led them out and away to an awaiting cargo freighter- that my path was clear and the ship engines warm I will never know to attribute to luck, Kulex, or Stargazer Cuixtli, but we fled fast with Devout on our tailfeathers.
We crashed outside a USCM base.
The others were processed- fed and clothed and medicated and returned to their homes, and I was held for questioning, though I passed out almost immediately from my injuries and the stress of escape. My sleep was not dreamless- I dreamt of clouds, of Aether, of sunlit Sunborn and my fellow Ascendants drenched in golden light and great wings of shining gold- but I awoke to my wounds tended by a gentle Apex and the Commander themself by my bed, seeking my story.
This recount is much the same.
That I would meet another so struck far from home, by things they could not stop- by a clash of culture and control and death and fear- and to come to know them so well despite all that has occurred to each of us, to love them- this affirms my faith, my goal, my plea: cease the terror of the Devout. Sacrifice no one to gods that do not ask them directly. Embrace the Grounded and their dreams, be they Heresy or no.
Have compassion in your faith.
The Devout may think me a heretic, a fool, a broken one- and the Grounded, not willing to commit, not sure enough in Kulex’s falsehood. I am no Grounded- for Kulex I know chose me to speak this truth, to share it and appease it and prevent the suffering we have instilled- but I am no Flightless either, no longer with their prayers, no longer tranquil in their Temples, no longer joyous in Ascension.
I am but a Fallen, and may you hear my plea.