Twenty days—it took Banai twenty days to cross the Steppe. He walked by night when the air was cool and the vast, sprawling sky overhead was filled with stars. By day he scouted out a patch of shade and slept, tossing fitfully in the heat, sweating and pawing at the ground with his hands. The sere, brown landscape, empty and monotonous, became imprinted in his mind, fixed there so that even at night, even in the dark, he could imagine it stretching before him league upon league, defining the world to the exclusion of all else, defining the whole of existence.
On the fifteenth day the distant line of the mountains appeared, dark against the far horizon, steeped in shadow. Thereafter the mountains grew in size every day, acquiring shape and definition and form, acquiring conviction. They were the first thing Banai saw in the morning and the last he saw at night. They dominated the land as nothing else ever had and as nothing else ever could. The highest peaks seemed to touch the very heavens. But they never lost the deep veil of shadow, never surrendered their majestic air of mystery.
On the nineteenth day rolling hillocks began to appear. Green living plants that had not been hammered into submission by the sun dotted the landscape. The Steppe slowly began to relinquish its grip. Its harsh, overbearing authority bled away into the night and receded into the past. The heat drained from the air. Banai discovered that he could walk during the day and sleep at night, as he had been unable to while crossing the Borderlands. An oppressive weight seemed to have fallen from his shoulders. His step quickened and his spirits lifted.
The twentieth day brought Banai to the columns of stone of which the old men spoke. Three times the height of a man, they marked the furthest reaches of the ancient empire. They had once been adorned with carvings of leaves and vines, with text describing the epic deeds of Banai’s ancestors. Now they were worn almost smooth. None could say for how long the columns had stood there—back before humans had found their way to the seacoasts certainly, back before the beginning of the Great Migration. But how many countless centuries was that?
He fell to his knees before the columns, reached out to touch the stone. He was awed by its mass and by the dense, grainy solidity that distinguished it. Flesh was as nothing before stone, was as water, thin and insubstantial. Stone was a thing of the mountains, forged in their distant fastness, torn from their living roots.
Banai withdrew his knife from its sheath. It was his most prized possession, had passed from his grandfather to his father to himself. He ran his thumb along the edge, marvelling, as always, at its perfection, its hard, adamantine strength before which nothing could endure. He looked at the column of stone and resolved to measure its hardness by the only standard he knew—that of the knife. One must yield before the other, must concede precedence. Or perhaps…
He struck the stone with the blade. Kernels of blue-white fire leapt through the air, burning his hand and causing him to cry aloud in wonder and in admiration. Had ever such a thing been seen before—metal and stone, each equally unyielding, giving nothing before the other, spitting fire in their defiance?
Banai felt the heat in the blade. He lay it across his thigh to draw off the warmth and dissipate it. Then, according to the ancient ritual, he touched his forehead to the base of the stone, allowing its strength to flow into him, to gird him for the trial ahead. Slipping between the towering columns, he plunged into this world of stone, eager to discover its secrets, to fathom its mysteries.
The lower slopes of the mountain were covered with vegetation. Here, the land seemed neither so harsh nor so alien as Banai had expected. As he climbed, however, the vegetation became more sparse and sporadic. The trees became stunted, their branches twisted and gnarled by the winter winds. The brush clustered close along the ground, tough and wiry and coarse. The leaves were blue-black and emitted a sharp, alkaline odour when crushed.
Rubble littered the path. Boulders carpeted the slope above, appearing to hang in the air, needing little to dislodge them and send them plummeting down the hillside. Banai made his way up a steep stone escarpment, fighting for purchase, using his hands to help him climb. The air became thinner. The burning in his thighs grew intense.
He paused to rest and to listen to the silence, a silence as deep and impenetrable as the veil of shadow that clung to the flanks of the mountain. The sun took on a bronze cast. It no longer resembled the sun of his home country but appeared alien and unfamiliar, dangerous. Its light imbued the stone with a desolate beauty. Every angle and edge and fracture was outlined in sharp relief, magnified and enhanced.
It was a wild and untamed landscape, a world removed from the soft alluvial mud of his home village. In the river delta, amidst the lush foliage and the slow, measured current of the river, the mountains were far away, so distant and so remote that they seemed not wholly real. Stone was a thing the villagers saw only rarely, imported from the barren wastes of the interior. People ventured inland only out of desperation and at the hazard of their lives. Here was a realm that enforced its own terms, which substituted its sensibilities in place of one’s own.
Banai recollected some lines from the revered poet, Arkan:
the cult of stone
the bliss of stone
where but amongst the mountains dwells
to them alone vouchsafed
Where but in a land such as this could such a sentiment be understood? Where else did it grip one with such force and authenticity? In the soft, easy summer of the delta, in the tranquil nights, in the long solemn procession of the days? Never! Only here, in this land of soaring vistas, of bold, unspoken promise, was its impact fully realized. Here, where time was a concrete physical presence and the concept of eternity more than mere empty rhetoric.
The bronze light burned into Banai’s flesh, settled into the marrow of his bones. He held up one arm, studied it, startled by the power that seemed to reside therein. He flexed his hand. The knotted muscles and tendons pulsed with life. Bronze flowed in his arteries, boring through the sluggish, silt-clogged confines of his soul. He began to climb again, revelling in the taste and feel of the bronze-tinted air, in the beauty of the stone and the dramatic sweep of the land laid out beneath him.
He climbed higher, passing wild crags and tors and wind-sculpted fingers of stone. Circling the outer edge of a dome of naked rock, he staggered out upon the edge of a deep fissure, sheer rock walls falling away in a dizzying descent. Some cataclysmic event of the far distant past had split the earth asunder. A lake of molten magma lay at the bottom, spitting and hissing. Light saturated the chasm, painted the walls with phantasmagoric streaks of red and orange and crimson and gold. Banai stood there mesmerized, unable to move.
The world was being created anew. The forces that had forged this land, that had shaped and defined it, stood exposed. Heat beat against Banai’s face. Bronze surged through his arteries, pumping between the chambers of his heart. He swayed back and forth, teetering on the brink. The urge to hurl himself out into the void was almost irresistible. He grabbed at an outcropping of rock, waiting for the moment to pass. He drew a deep breath, shuddered, felt the fiery tide recede.
Vision restored, he was able to discern a narrow passageway hidden in the face of the dome. Only now that he had been touched by fire could he make it out. He groped his way along a crumbling spine of rock. The sound of his footsteps reverberated off the sides of the chasm below, impossibly loud, as though some great act of violence were being perpetrated. He squeezed sideways through the entrance to the passageway. The walls had once—or so the fable related—been adorned with amethysts and emeralds and sapphires, precious stones of incomparable brilliance and beauty. But these, if ever they existed, had long ago been plundered.
At the end of the passage lay a rectangular chamber. It was lit from above by an aperture bored through the stone in some titanic feat of physical prowess. Debris carpeted the floor, the decay of many centuries. A stone sarcophagus rested in the centre of the room. Banai approached it with reverence.
On the lid of the coffin three runes had been inscribed: the symbols for Stone, for Death and for Resurrection. Banai traced the symbols with one finger. As he did so, the light grew stronger, pulsed with a rich bronze effulgence. He gripped the sarcophagus with both hands, attempted to lift the lid. It held fast. He leaned forward, put his shoulder to the task, pushed. Stone ground against stone. Sparks cascaded down around the floor. The lid slid aside.
Within lay the remains of Aldurian, legendary king and ancestral patriarch of the race. The cadaver had shrunken and calcified yet the form and figure remained almost intact. The left temporal region of the skull had been crushed, lending credence to rumours of assassination. The crown, scarce recognizable as such, was corroded and encrusted with a thick coating of verdigris.
Light flowed into the sarcophagus, settled over the dead king like a mantle of silk. The light acted as a window stretching back in time. Banai beheld Aldurian as he had appeared in his prime, at the pinnacle of his power and fame. He was a physically imposing presence, tall, broad-shouldered, with square jaw, chiselled features and commanding mien. There was nothing slack or loose or feeble apparent in his makeup. To Banai, Aldurian represented physical and moral perfection, an ideal, impossible to match or to exceed. The ancient king endured as the stone around him endured, undiminished through the ages, triumphant, eternal.
Banai knelt, crossed his arms in a gesture of fealty. He repeated the formula, the oath learned as a child, pledging life, limb, heart and soul unto the final measure. Even so had his ancestors been initiated into manhood, born of these mountains, incorporating their rhythms and tides, their deep, sure convictions and unwavering strength. So, too, had Banai returned, hoping to discover these things again, to recapture what had once been his birthright but had since been lost. The mountains had more than upheld their promise, as he had been certain that they would.
Far to the south, the swarming multitudes of the Delta looked up to see a sun cast out of bronze. Bronze light spilled over the river and across the flat alluvial plain. People cried out in terror, wondering what such signs portended or might mean. Deep in their bones the old ache had returned, the pure, austere homage to stone that had once defined them. Their pipestem legs trembled. Their concave chests and crooked spines slouched lower. They stuck out their tongues and tasted the air, tasted bronze.
They stared at one another in shock and consternation, their expressions stricken. They raised their hands to the sky in a gesture of supplication, filled with dismay to see what they had become.
Story copyright © 2022 by Thomas Canfield
Artwork copyright © 2022 by Michelle MX
Thomas Canfield’s phobias run to politicians, lawyers, and TV pitchmen. He likes dogs and beer. He had a recent story in the online magazine MetaStellar.
Michelle MX is a Canadian digital artist, settling back home after many years living abroad in Europe. Assuming she would stick to painting and portraiture, a year of study in the UK showed her that collage and mixed media art was a more fitting method of expression. She now collects a wide variety of images to mix and match in her work, which mostly includes her own photos of plants and landscapes, images from magazines, vintage encyclopaedias, and scenes from her parents’ photo albums.