This post originally appeared at the Old School Heretic Blog.
Most of the once splendid temples of Devukarsha are in ruins. The Incarnate Gods were overthrown and their cathedrals and basilica looted, burned and converted into municipal bordellos, contract-prisons and museums. At least those that were not demolished or destroyed by the wrathful, rioting mobs who cast down the great idols, overturned the ancient ikons, and defaced the splendid mosaics of their once and former pseudo-deistic oppressors. The Godswar ended, for the most part, with those who once lorded it over the masses whom they treated as pawns, playthings and slaves now cast down and fallen from power. Where once the Incarnate Gods had walked amongst the people of the city-states of the Great Rift like mighty tyrants and implacable forces of nature personified, now only a few hollow arcolossi wander in the wastes like walking tenements and the glories of a decadent age have been torn down or rendered obsolete and drab by the monuments that have supplanted them over the intervening decades.
But not all of the Incarnate Gods left Devukarsha.
Deep beneath the caverns of Tarshu, behind the matte black walls of the Eastern penal-chateau of Angeif, the Penitent Gods wait in their cells for the one time each year during which they are brought forth for their procession of shame and recrimination. At the lowest and darkest point of the coldest night of the year, the Penitent Gods are taken from their prison and marched along the causeway, through the Waterfront Districts, along the Misericorde Canal and up the zig-zagging Road of Oracles that leads all the way to the First Tier itself. It is a bitter and surreal spectacle as the broken and defaced statues, shattered and misshappen ikons, defaced graven images and lumbering prison-shrines are interspersed amongst the maimed hypostases, mutilated archons, crippled avatars and manifest forms of numerous war-criminal demiurgoi and their most favored minions are gathered in the sleet and snow, assembled into an orderly formation by sergeants only recently returned from the Eastern Front, most of whom are wearing mechanical prosthetics forcibly grafted onto them by machine-mines or worse. It's supposed to be an honor to order about Incarnate Gods, but for most of the dead-eyed veterans it's just one more stupid drill in bad weather and they'd just as soon get it over with.
A massive, heavily etched and carved boulder is rolled before the assembled prisoners by a magnificent gigantic scarab crafted from the bits and pieces of thousands of fallen soldiers' armor, shields and helmets. Some say that the scarab contains the bones of those who fought and perished in the Godswar as well, making it a mobile reliquary swarming with vengeful ghosts, but few really believe such a silly story. The rounded boulder that the scarab rolls before the procession contains the incubating young of the scarab, or so that is what the etchings and carvings all announce quite clearly and plainly. But no one knows why that would be. All that anyone really knows is that the scarab and its boulder lead the procession and sets the pace for the ensuing march of shame and remorse. Dreadful prodigies and unhallowed mutants are often born in the wake of this solemn procession, should anyone be so careless as to expose themselves to the parade of chained and manacled Incarnates while pregnant. Which happens far too often for anyone's comfort. Lorshal has been known to sponsor prospective mothers willing to expose themselves -- and their unborn children -- to this procession and the weird teratogenic vibrations it radiates. Some believe that Lorshal was himself affected by the procession while he was still in his own mother's womb. Perhaps this is the reason he seeks to create more monstrosities. Maybe he just thinks it's intriguing. Or it could just be a game to him. Lorshal is inscrutible in his profligacy and his whims are unfathomable to anyone not as internally twisted as he himself has become.
One small child clad in a soft gray robe carries a large, heavily bound book wrapped in spiked chains wrought from the blackest iron dug from the depths of a dead worldscape deep within the seventy-second planar layer of Riskail. The child has black iron eyes to match the chains and they cast no shadow as they march before the incarcerated demiurgoi. There is no name recorded for this child, and the great, old book is alleged to be the one and only extent volume that holds within it the true names of the demiurgoi and their various and sundry ancillary hypostases, aspects, avatars and other accomplices, all of whom are bound within this dreadful tome and thus legally imprisoned according to the armistice which ended the Godswar.
Vitiumists walk beside their masters, each one covered in a rash of sores that tear themselves open to form fresh, bloody mouths to chant the liturgies of repentence on behalf of their patrons. Each one wears a ragged and tattered set of thread-bare vestments that get tangled-up in the protuberant rashes and are chewed into gobby strands by the chanting mouths.
Contortionist-cenobites perform grisly and depraved acts of self-mutilation and mutual torture while chained to the ankles of their creators. Where once they struck fear into the enemies and the damned, now they lash out at themselves and each other in impotent wrath, each one condemned to their grotesque entourage and doomed to surviving only by cannibalizing one another as their once formidable regeneration capabilities now only produce hideous tumors that fight for possession of their nervous systems and horrific cancerous growths that lash out like dripping, degenerate tentacles edged with cruel hooks and serated bony-tips. It is considered a blessing that these horrid things are often obscured by the heavy shadows that hang down from the fractured auras of the Incarnates like malignant drapes of seething darkness that part only to allow an onlooker to feast their eyes upon the most abominable of travesties, the utter worst of the worst, the ruined and rotting carnal inferno that writhes shrieking piteously around the marching figures of what once were tyrant gods. Their cruelty has been turned back upon itself. Their genius for terror returned to them a thousandfold.
It is whispered in the waterfront taverns that to look too intently or too deeply into the midst of the procession of Penitent Gods is to invite damnation for a visit. Maybe that's just superstition, but few have been so brave or reckless as to test out the theory. The moaning souls of those bound-up within the demiurgoi and their Incarnate forms slither and billow all around the edges of the procession in a never-ending phantasmagoria of wretchedness and despair that chills the heart and freezes the blood of the drunkest of would-be bravos.
Out of respect for the Bound Ones, and by ancient Necrosophic decree no undead or amortal is to be found out in the streets nor anywhere within view of the procession of Penitent Gods. Ever. Most suspect it is a gesture of some sort based upon the ambivalent role that the various undead factions played within the Godswar until they became united under the Black Rose Banner of Androphus IV. Many of the demiurgoi Incarnate Gods were brought down by undead forces during the war, but there are many amongst them who did so with severe reservations and in some instances profound regrets. In the wake of the Mass Vivisation of the Court of Thorns and the desecration of Past Master Lurdivek by unlicensed defilers, the undead are splintering into factions again and as the ultra conservative amongst them begin to look back fondly upon the glorious nights of their past some are said to be looking to their former masters and leaders amongst the Penitent Gods.
But no undead are allowed near the procession. That was one of the terms of the armistice. But the act of Vivisation (the deliberate revivification of undead flesh into biologically active life) is not only a contra-assassination, it places the entire Court of Thorns into a murky gray area legally. They are no longer truly undead. So far they have not pursued the matter, but the Magistrates are in a serious quandry over what they are to do if one or more of the formerly undead Necrosophics ever do show up.
Bringing up the rear of the procession are the ectovores and gobblers who waddle along gulping down the more offensive traces and lingering remains left in the wake of the demiurgoi and their servitors. Tall karcists and exorcists clad in shimmering polymail and tall, conical masque-crowns guide the exotic creatures in cleaning up the broken-off pieces of reliquaries, splinters of bone, gobs of writhing ectoplasm, festering pockets of ill will, shards of smoldering shadows and fractured auric residue. Behind and beside the voracious, whining beasts and their implacable masters walk those few sinister shrouded-augurs who pick through the detritus and debris of the demiurgoi procession in order to read the omens cast off by the Incarnates, or to examine the patterns of fate revealed by the dragging chains which they interpret in a mad frenzy of psychic exaltation bordering upon mania. Their predictions are obtuse, cryptic and tend to be little more than obscure hints difficult to decipher without their professional guidance.
It is considered bad luck to gamble in close proximity to the procession of Penitent Gods. Impossible numbers, aberrant combinations and bizarre never-seen-before cards appear and discord is sure to follow. Nothing gained at this time is what it seems and most often it takes on a macabre and almost purply-gothic character. Drunks recall all their many sins and Temptation is often lurking nearby when the procession of the Penitent Gods passes by.
The lights dim and the shadows congeal and swirl as though agitated like muck stirred-up from the bottom of a muddy pond. A disturbing pressure follows the procession as though it were the eye of a deep hurricane that can only just be felt at the very farthest extent of one's senses. Poltergeists frolic and wreak mischief on every side of the procession as they celebrate the onset of the little season of misrule. Those of the Devoted and the Dedicated who once swore allegiance to the demiurgoi, who served the Incarnate Gods, descend upon Devukarsha in droves. They turn out to look upon their masters in horror, revulsion or helpless sympathy. Some come to formally abandon their past affiliation, others come to re-affirm their faith in the honor and redeemable nature of their chosen demiurge.
The procession of Penitent Gods makes its motley way along the traditional route through the city as various groups of followers, protesters, picketers and supplicants gather at specific points along the streets and boulevards. Some travel in large groups, especially those who declare themselves as rebellious Followers of the Incarnate Gods, each of whom travel hooded, masked and heavily armored and carrying archaic weapons while they display the cultic symbols of the faithful, those who still believe in the Incarnate Gods despite terrible persecution should they ever be identified. Some declare themselves rebels and god-wallowers only to cause trouble, commit violence and start riots that they then seek to either dedicate to, or blame upon, the Penitent Gods. Others carry torches, lamps and lit candles or the pictures of their loved ones who were lost or destroyed or worse during the reign of the once callous and now repentant Incarnate Gods. Still others come to lob rocks or to curse the fallen tyrants. This is a dangerous thing to do, but it is permitted along the parade route, again another condition set forth in the armistice. Most times the Penitent Gods stoically suffer these insults and the cascade of filth, offal, rotten vegetables and sharp rocks, but sometimes they, or one of their accomplices takes exception and a person casting a stone without any real and true cause can be struck down by a curse, hex or jinx.
If the Incarnate God or their fellow convicts can prove hypocrisy or bad faith on the part of the afflicted, the curse is allowed to stand and there are no further repercussions to the Penitent Gods or their entourage. So long as there are legitimate victims of their past unlawful cruelty present along the path of their dour parade, the Penitent Gods bow their heads and march and endure the vituperation and revilement of the crowds as they make their way along the cobblestone streets to the Broken District and the still smoking crater that once was their mightiest, grandest palace-citadel. But by the same token, they will not abide by someone with no claim against them taking a cheap shot. Only those who have been directly and demonstrably harmed by the demiurgoi have any right to seek redress by violence, be it verbal, physical or more subtle.
The persistent miasmic cloud of hexes, curses and ill-will that hovers around and amongst the marching demiurgoi becomes fiercer and more pronounced each year as it grows like a psychic cancer. Seven Orders of monastics have begun to make pilgrimages to Devukarsha so that they can re-trace the path of the procession of Penitent Gods. They counter the negativity that follows the procession and put to rest whatever lingering traces they can uncover or discover as they quietly, unobtrusively walk along the parade route with their octagonal mirrors, tattvic cubes, and data-malas.
The procession takes four hours to reach the Broken District, sometimes a little more, such as when a group of apostates attempted to crash the parade and assassinate one of the Penitent Gods. It took an extra two and a half minutes for the apostates to be assimilated into their own sub-section trailing after the goddess whom they once worshipped. No one has tried to follow their example since.
Upon arrival at the crater, the scarab construct rolls the massive boulder directly into the gaping non-space of the crater where it crashes down into some disjointed and fragmented portion of space where it can take root and serve as a single piece in a foundation that needs to be rebuilt across innumerable planar layers. Most admit that it is a futile, but symbolically significant gesture none the less.
There at the site of what once was the central nexus of what was once the seat of their empire, the Penitent Gods stand and hear a cadre of magistrates, constables and prosecutors read out before them a full account of their recorded crimes. They stand staring down into the blasted depths of a crater that is not entirely in any one plane any longer as their accusers stand forth and unfurl the traditional vidscrolls that give an updated account of all the Incarnate Gods' crimes, some of which are still matters of investigation even after all these decades. The readers all read their elaborately illuminated vidscrolls all at once, producing an awful cacophony that echoes and howls across the shimmering, smoldering non-emptiness of what once was a holy place. It is said that the voices of the restless dead cry out in the midst of these recitations, but that's probably just some macabre poet's bullshit romanticization of what is otherwise a dreary and onerous burden.
The weather almost always turns foul and drizzly during the mass-recitation. It has been known to rain blood mingled with hail and on at least on occasion there was a vicious ash-fall that killed dozens of onlookers who had to be taken to the Helical Cathedrae to be recovered. Once a woman was turned into a pillar of salt while she heckled the Penitent Gods. Now only the Impious Mockers and Grim Jesters, Dire Clowns and Blasphemous Jokers dare to mock the manacled, chained and caged demiurgoi Incarnates. Everyone else keeps their peace and averts their eyes or stays indoors until it's all over and done with -- many taverns offer specials and run live footage of the proceedings along their bar tops or walls as though it were some grim and boring sporting event.
The readers complete their recitations. The echoes die down. The Penitent Gods stand there in the gloom, heads bowed and hands bound, spattered with the garbage and other things thrown at them in the course of their procession. The Chief Magistrate steps forth. All goes silent in anticipation. The Chief Magistrate asks one simple question:
"Is there forgiveness for any of these beings who have cruelly and wrongly abused their powers, abilities and Incarnate Divinity as tyrants and despots?"
A ceremonial bell cast from the five hundred swords removed from the old coliseum where heretics were forced to kill one another in gladitorial combat is rolled out and then struck five times with a long pause in-between each strike. If no one speaks on behalf of the Penitent Gods by the end of the fifth stroke, there is no forgiveness and they are to remain imprisoned for one more year. No follower devoted to the Incarnates is allowed to speak on their behalf by explicit order of the gods themselves. They will strike down anyone who follows them and tries to speak for them in this matter. Their freedom can only come from forgiveness gained from those that they wronged directly and no other way. If the last one of their victims dies a final death without granting them forgiveness, they will be doomed and damned for the rest of time.
Three times in the distant past someone has come forth from the crowd to offer forgiveness to a particular Incarnate God. One was torn to pieces by the mob only to be transfigured as a martyr-saint of the Embodied Principle of Forgiveness. Another was betrayed by the freed Incarnate who fled the city and the world itself as soon as they were able to do so, leaving the person who forgave them to die an unregistered vagrant who voluntarily refused recovery. The third still occupies the reformed temple of Jraal (Juh'Rahl), the reconstruction and renovations of which they have overseen ever since speaking on behalf of the former warmongering vengeance-killer who has since gone on to become the patron of ant ranchers.
If no one stands forth and no forgiveness is granted, then the magnificent scarab-construct leads the procession West, down the Road of Sibyls, through the now silent and deserted streets and on to the West Penal-Chateau of Angeif where the Penitent Gods serve out one more year on their sentences. The next year they will set out from the West and those not forgiven will continue onwards to the East. Each year they alternate, depending upon where they ended their procession. It takes most of the year to clear, clean and rebuild their former cells and the meta-warden of Angeif is always thinking up new forms of rehabilitation, moral instruction and the like. He truly loves his work. It's his calling.