The inhabitants of the empire worship their ancestors and the trace of themselves they have left in the Land after dying. With the correct practice, they can even communicate with them to receive protection and advice. Because of this, the identity of a person's ancestors is very important to determine their social worth, and shaming one's ancestors is the worst thing anyone could do.
The trace of the ancestors
This worship rests on the fact that people leave a trace of their magic behind when they die. This magic carries a weak part of their sentience and settles in the ground of the place where their body is left. The magic is strengthened by several generations of the same family living and dying in the same place, giving rise to a form of sentience.
The sentience of the Land is rather limited. It is more of an instinct than a very defined personality, as not a lot of a person is left after their death. However, through proper worship, people can establish a link with it and communicate so as to request protection and advice.
The more magic someone has while they live, the more they live behind after they die. This means that the nobility leaves more magic than commoners. In addition, the lords and ladies ruling Estates are magically linked to the Land over which they rule and so they leave even more magic behind.
What this results in is that the global Land that covers the entirety of an Estate has one form of sentience that is linked to the ruling family, but that this global sentience can also divide itself into lots of smaller entities in specific locations. Those "aspects" of the Land are linked to weaker families and represent their own ancestors. By doing a local worship, it is possible to call out those specific aspects and divide them from the whole sentience to only communicated with one's own ancestors.
Annabelle let a tendril of her magic out of her body and reached to wards the ground like an invisible tentacle. the Land immediately reached back, warm and eager to make her feel welcome. This was her inheritance. Her ancestors. She would never get over that fact after fifteen years spent isolated and ignorant in an orphanage. Her family may have all been dead, but they were still there for her, surrounding her with their protection, their advice, and their esteem.
The worship has two goals: to communicate with the Land and get something from it, be it advice, some magical boost or something else, and to feed the Land. A weakened Land will be harder to communicate with, less able to answer request, and may even die and disappear completely. Thus, all worship requires some magic to be sacrifice, personal magic to establish a communication and magic from any kind of sources to feed the Land.
Before her first proper Autumn equinox, Annabelle was a bit doubtful. Why bother with connecting with the Land when it was already there with her every day, answering to her every feeling and thoughts and trying to nudge her to take specific decisions?
Of course, that was before she went through with the ritual and the full weight of the Land's awareness descended up on her as it fully awakened. Nothing could be compared to the size and power of it, and the feeling of such an all-mighty and all-knowing entity fully focus on her. It was not loving—that was not really the style of the Alyssennes—but it was benevolent and focused on keeping her safe and having her bring glory to the lot of them. And how could she refuse them when she was finally offered a place to belong?
— Lady Annabelle Alyssenne
Strength of the connection
To establish a full connection with the Land and the ancestors requires a lot of magic, and so most people will only be able to carry it during the important religious rituals such as solstice and equinox celebrations. During those times, people's mind can fully connect with the Land's sentience and this feels similar to connecting with someone else's mind during a ritual or for long distance communication. Questions can be asked, and the answer will mostly be direct and clear, coming in the form of images and strong feelings.
Outside of those important events, daily worship will only establish a partial communication. Catching the attention of the Land is more difficult then, questions can be misinterpreted and answer are vague or even unhelpful.
After that first equinox, Annabelle went back to the temple in the Alyssenne manor. Beyond a brief visit, she had not really been here before, had not truly given a thought to giving a proper worship to her Land. It had never really mattered in Arianie, but then, she had no true link to that place, did she?
She started with a small sacrifice, just lighting the old candles that had been left lying around. She dubiously reached with her magic to the smoke and intermingle it with the carbon atoms and all the magic they were already containing. The ward of the temple brought the smoke down towards the sanctified ground where it was quickly absorbed by the Land.
Immediately, the connection between her and the Land flickered. Its awareness poked back at her, wondering the reason for her call. She winced. How neglectful she had been, that the Land could not realise this was only supposed to be an offering and not a request for help. But she would do better in the future...
— Lady Annabelle Alyssenne
The worship is done in places of high power, as the Land's awareness is higher there and it is easier to catch its attention. Those places are always the same throughout someone's life, as this also reinforces the strength of the connection. This place will either be a private family temple—for the most powerful family who have a strong connection with their own direct ancestors—or a village temple—for most other people, as all inhabitants of a village tend to be more or less closely related together.
At the centre of the temple is a piece of sanctified ground. This is where all sacrifices are laid or buried to be absorbed by the Land, including the corpse of dead people. The exact method of worship used depend on regional preferences, ranging from burning the sacrifice and dispersing or burying the ashes there, directly burying alive or dead, or even having some special species of insect or mushrooms inside that sanctified ground to accelerate the digestion of the magic contained in the sacrifices.
Annabelle looked away from where she was kneeling above a candle to examine again the rest of the Alyssenne temple. It was not as big as the temple in Arianie to where she had been dragged as a child. It was a simple room with paved stones on the ground and modest abstract symbols painted directly on the walls. In the middle of it was a patch of bare soil, the sanctified ground, with a hole in the ceiling just above it. And in front of the sanctified ground was a big slab of black marble stone in front of which Annabelle was kneeling. Knives and candles had been left there since the time of her parents' death, just as forgotten as Annabelle's ancestors had been...
— Lady Annabelle Alyssenne
Weekly or daily worship is done with small sacrifices of animals such as a chicken or bundle of plants so that their magic go backs to the Land to feed it, with a small amount of the worshiper's own magic to create a weak connection with the Land. This connection serves as a signature to establish who did the sacrifice. On those occasions, most people only ask for a small benediction from their ancestors for their daily life.
For commodity, special candles are made with concentrated plant material crafting plant materials that can be burned to feed the magic they contain to the Land—wards over the temple ensure that all ashes and vapour are redirected towards the sanctified ground. Another common method of worship is to bring animals that are destined to the cooking pot and to kill them and bleed them over the sanctified ground so as to avoid any waste. The parts discarded from the cooking and the bones are also brought back to be sacrificed.
For more important events, when a question needs to be asked to the ancestors for example, a more important sacrifice is necessary. First, the worshipper, most often alongside their full family, sacrifice their own blood rather than just some magic so as to establish a stronger connection with the Land. The more blood sacrificed and the most powerful the person doing the sacrifice, the better the connection and so the better the answer will be. Then, they also feed the Land some more important sacrifice such as a full cow. The goal of the sacrifice here is to coax the ancestors into giving a good answer, as they may not be inclined to do so even if the connection is fully established.
Annabelle was still shaken and horrified when looking over the corpses of the enormous sea creatures. The damned thing had made all of the Easter Seas their home, but normally they were blocked from swimming up the rivers of the Black Forest by the all the murderous Alyssenne flowers living there. There must have really been a tremendous number of them attempting an invasion at the same time for any to have managed to go through, let alone half a dozen! And those things were so brimming in magic, nobody would be foolish enough to consider them easy adversaries.
Since all of the plants of the Black forest must have received their share already, it was more than fair than Annabelle had those corpses brought to the sanctified ground of her House's temple. Let them all feed themselves the Land they had just attempted to devoir!
Religion in daily life
Religion is woven through the lives of everyone in the empire. Big yearly celebrations all revolve around celebrating one's ancestors and doing a ritual to magically connect with them. The most important ones are the solstice and equinox celebrations. In addition, before taking any important decision it is customary to confer with one's ancestors to ask them for advice, such as during a Courtship Rituals or before a marriage bonding. The best way to do this is of course during the big rituals, but if there is not enough time, any kind of worship is preferable to none.
Going completely against the ancestors' advice is unthinkable to most and brings a lot of shame on the individual who does so. At worst, they can be cast away from their family and local community, losing the right to access their temple and becoming a social pariah. To avoid this, when confronted with unfavourable advice most people will try to understand the causes for the ancestors' decisions and see if they can change it. Many people also attempt to "negotiate" by offering bigger sacrifices to coax the ancestors over.
When Annabelle first started to consider the idea of the Courtship Rituals more seriously, it was very natural to decide that if she were to go through with this she would have four "tasks", one for each of the solstice and equinox and to be carried out alongside them. Finding allies and making good trade deals was going to be hard enough, she could use all the help she could get and her ancestors would be more than eager to help.
— Lady Annabelle Alyssenne
Importance of one's ancestors
Since people do not completely disappear after death, having highly regarded ancestors is extremely important to everyone. Indeed, it can bring a lot of respect if people think you have their direct advice and approval, or on the contrary bring a lot of dishonour if they disapprove of you. Because of this, it is essential for all Houses in the empire to keep a close track of their ancestors and all details of their past achievements.
In addition, each House has a narrative about their family, choosing which events to remember and how to remember them, so as to draw from them a series of values important to the family and a view of their place in the world and goals in life. The family's line-gift always has a paramount place in those narratives, with a high focus on the reason for the family choosing to develop that specific area of magic and the importance for current and future generations to continue practising that magic to further refine the gift.
Travelers, people uprooted from their ancestral lands, and orphans with unknown parents are all looked at with a great deal of suspicion. This includes foreigners coming into an Estate to claim it from its previous ruler, even if the amount of social stigma they face has to be severely limited because of the high amount of magic such an exploit has shown them to have.
Adrien was a good teacher, and as a member of a House serving the Alyssenne for centuries, he was ideally placed to share with Annabelle the history of her House. Simple facts were not enough, there were other things there, reasons for their decisions, and behind them values to uphold. Annabelle would make sure to do them proud.
— Lady Annabelle Alyssenne
Joining one's ancestors after death
A punishment for someone who goes against their House is to refuse them the opportunity to join that plot after death, and so that they will be forgotten and that nothing of them will be left after their death. Only the head of the House can make that decision, and this is a threat they use often to keep the other members in line.
Nevertheless, it is considered an extremely harsh punishment and only reserved for the most extreme and horrifying cases. Someone killing their head of House to claim the title for themselves for example would not be refused that right. Similarly, if the head of the House is clement, someone cast out of their House can be pardoned after their death and brought back to the ancestral ground.
Alternatively, a lord or lady can punish a House by forcing them to accept the body of a traitor or criminal. The implication is that such a bad person is going to be added to the House's ancestral sentience and is going to "pollute" it with their bad qualities, thus punishing the whole House and their descendants.
What Adrien had been unable to share was all those ancestors of hers who had gone outside of the approved path and what had happened to them... Those people were bound to be born in every family, even the most prestigious. Yet, there was little more insulting and punishing than being refused the opportunity to join one's own ancestors and to be completely forgotten and stricken from all records, with not even a name left as a witness of their existence.
— Lady Annabelle Alyssenne
Curses and expressions
Since their ancestors are so important to everyone in the empire, they naturally figure prominently in the language. Everyday exclamations of surprise or disapproval invoke ancestors: "Her ancestor forbade!", "Her ancestors take her and her lack of control!", or "Oh, ancestors!". Cursing someone's ancestors or implying bad things about them is also a deadly insult, for example "His ancestors be forgotten!".
Alternatives are to imply that their ancestors would be ashamed of them, cast them out, or curse them: "You're a shame on your ancestors.", "You, ancestor-betrayer!", "Your ancestors forsake you!", "His ancestors curse him!", "Ancestor-cursed idiot!". This can also be used as an effective threat, such as "don't let that fear make you shame your ancestors". Milder versions only imply that someone's ancestor forgot them because of how insignificant they are, such as "ancestor-forgotten".
As an extension of this, there are legends about specific ancestors' curses that would have given rise to ancestor-spectres. Those are thought to be some kind of intangible formless ball of energy that are the Land and the ancestors manifesting to take revenge when someone did something so outrageous that they could not take it anymore. Not everyone agrees on their existence, but they make a very successful threat to disobedient children.
Annabelle pinched her lips as Adrien once again implied that it was not what her ancestors would have wanted. Of course she did not want to shame them; But she, as the lady, was the one with the direct link to the Land! If anyone knew what they actually wanted, it was her! She was not such a naïve child as to let herself be manipulated as easily. Not anymore at least...
— Lady Annabelle Alyssenne
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