This Week’s Prompt: 70. Tone of extreme phantasy. Man transformed to island or mountain.
The Prior Research: The Root of the Mountain
The land of Loni was once a flat and unmarked plan, a grassland that rolled on and on. It was disturbed, only slightly, by circular wood at it’s center—a wood of white, straight trees rising with branches outstretched towards heaven. It was in this small wood that the lone permanent inhabitant of Loni sat. Back to bark, the old monk sat crossed legged with eyes closed. At his feet a bronze bowl had been placed by some traveler over Loni. Scraps of paper and coin were in it’s bottom, but the meditative man was unaware. He had come this far for its isolation, for while there were lands that Loni sat between, it was deemed cultivatable and undesirable by most—a waste with a thin layer of grass over it by reasonable folk, and a haunted and spirit filled land by wise ones.
The mendicant had been mediating beneath the tree for over a decade, living on the earth’s slow breath and dew of morning. His thoughts lost in the depths of the cosmos, in passing he resembled a statue So it was that the rain and storms did not bother him. He was aware of them distantly, as if he observed them from afar. Nor was the brush fire that wrapped around the woods of any bother to him, for he had set his mind beyond such things.
Once, a bolt of lighting struck the tree he sat beneath, splitting it open and igniting the wood into a blaze that consumed all of it but the mendicant. Unmoved, he did not notice the seeds that fell into the ashes around him and on top of him. He was like a stone as roots spread across his limbs and legs, as trees embraced his form for stability. From afar, one could see that the new trees had grown a few feet taller, as proof the old man remained. Some drew close, and found his old bowl still there, at before the rooted statue that seemed trapped and bound by the trees.
The rusting bowl was taken, by those who traversed the plains, to be a site of offering. Seeing to appease the the man beneath the trees, some gave him coin for good fortune. And those who later had good fates ascribed them to him, returning with greater gifts. Stories spread of the old man beneath the trees, of his power over wealth and wonder. Grant him coin, it was said, and he would guide the traveler to wonders. Or that he stood guard over some majestic treasure, or could from a far cure sickness. The old man himself noticed only the odd child who poked his nose or disturbed his peace in some other way. He could not but smile, shifting branches and roots with a small grin. Still the trees grew around him, a halo of plant life around his head. Otherwise, his mind remained away from the world, roots now dug deep.
Over time, the gifts around the old man grew vast indeed. Gems rested his legs, staves at his side bedecked with serpent and ox heads. Animals from far and wide had been left for his care, and grew to inhabit the forest. Images of loved ones in need of his thoughts, or of homes that people hoped to see, were thick on the floor around his bowl, making small walls. Abandoned swords, given up in oaths to him, or drinking horns cracked with oaths to him, the little god beneath the trees, accumulated around him. Such abundance could not help but be tinder.
In time, the place had become known as a place of pilgrimage and holy power. Loni had known no temples or kings, a land of itinerants and travel, of nameless shapeless spirits and ghosts. But not far off, a horse-lord heard of the treasures of the old man, and set to have them as his own. Gathering his arms, he rode with iron and fire to the woods, now thick in the center of the plains. The grass was dry that year and drought had settled in.
None of the men tried to move the old man, so covered in ash and roots and dead plant matter that he looked like a crude statue. As the nest of trees above him tumbled down, they could feel his breath on the ground, rising and falling without fail. Though they robbed him of many gems and weapons and tributes, they would not lay hands on those nearest him. And so the heated metal, the ashes of the trees and blackend roots settled on the shoulders of the old man, who’s long petrified bones and skin held it up.
After they returned with their loot, the plains of Loni were still and quiet. The years were burned into layers, into a hill of rotted and burned cinders. Decades layered upwards, rising over the grass lands. The animals had mostly escaped the fire, although they congregated around the hill often. The old man’s visage could still be seen slightly by those passing by—the small dents in the hill resembled eye sockets from afar, the ridges along the side might be construed as elbows. And the larger dent before the hill was commonly called “The Saint’s Bowl.”
Slowly, stories spread outward again of the old hill where miracles happened. There were tales that it was a great giant who had passed on, or that the mound was some old spirit. Those who remembered the old days thought it some holy place, and remembered the strange god beneath the trees. Regardless, once the rains came, the woods and plains grew again. With them pilgrims and travelers came again. Now they built, atop that hill, a village. At first a small temple and inn—but in time farms and houses. The area of the old forest was fertile with fallen ash. What was once waste was now farms, and what was once a stop along a voyage became a destination of its own.
The path through Londi was always a path, but with no safe haven it was considered an unfortunate and impossible one. The small shrine before was a place for travelers to rest, but no long caravan could make much there. The plains were to vast, to isolated, for long journeys regularly. But now, at the heart, a small town grew. The five grains could grow there, and there were beds for travelers. The rains collected at the bass of the hill, a small lake that water might be drawn from.
Tales were told of the hill, how it’s old spirit guarded the town or how it worked miracles, how deep in it’s bones a treasure lay, guarded by a fearsome thing. The town grew rich in time, and grew vast. A keep of brick stood around the head of hill, a crown of stone for the old man deep below. And this city, rich on the river that flowed across the plains, was perhaps the longest garment the old man-mountain wore.
Fire did not lay the city low—no, no flames could bring down its walls. Nor did war, although that came often along the winds. Nor did storms, that battered and broke the sky. These added to the mound, the hill rising as one wooden keep or baked brick was buried at it’s base and another built atop it. But the city stayed all the same. Even as bricks and mortar and wood came from faraway to raise the city ever higher, the people stayed. They told tales of the growing hill, and how it was once a terrible giant that came to repent its ways, or how the old father mountain granted wishes to those who innocently prayed. The groves atop the hills head, in the royal gardens, were said to be a gift from the spirits beneath the earth. And perhaps, at last, an eternity seemed atop the hills.
The old man’s mind wandered those streets at times. They were as far from his old form as the stars once were—he walked atop his form unseen, taking in every movement across his form. New families came and old families went, roots of a different sort sinking forever down. His thoughts were the thoughts of hills, clouds and fogs taken up into the sky. The children and elders felt his movements from stone to stone, topic to topic. The shifting of the breeze marked his passage. And he delighted in them, even those that were entombed beneath his skin.
The city came to an end in time, however. Not from thunder, or fire, or sword. Slowly, along the path of caravans, it crept closer. Unseen, unheard, the death came upon the breath of men. It lurked on the backs of rats, in ticks and fleas. It grew and spread outward among the crowds. The rivers of trade, of silver and gold, laid the city low. They died in droves—from beneath the mountain, the city seemed to wilt as a flower plucked from it’s home. The walls, so long standing that the seven sages might have laid them, came tumbling down with none to repair them. The houses decayed as the trees before them had, and fell into disrepair. The hill grew as it did every time, the old man’s form rising to new heights.
Those who walk the plains around the Mountain Londi sometimes hear the whispers of an old sage, and see the grass shift in the mountains shadow. Tales tell of the great caverns that are the eyes of the mountain, small and near the top. The lake and river beside it, an overflowing beggars bowl. A fine metaphor, the wise men think, for the appearance and abundance of the mountain. With such in mind, a group of ascetics built a monastery atop the mountain, where they sit in quiet contemplation—their minds tossed out ward to the starry cosmos.
This story was an interesting change of pace from the normal horror fare. While writing it, I tried to make it a bit more than a history of a location but a story of a person-place. The choice of each layer of destruction building the mountain was partly born of the folklore stories, but also from trying to give a pseudo-reality to the transformation. Instead of pure fancy, I wanted an stretch of a real phenomenon that also avoided body horror.
Overall, I’m actually rather proud of this story. Next week, however, we go back to the horror and a tale as old as Christendom: what happens when you sell your soul to the Devil?
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