Shadows & Sorcery #78
Look out! It’s in the trees—it’s the seventy-eighth edition of Shadows & Sorcery! AAAAAAA!!
And this week? We’re taking a deep dive into a world, into the strange and complex cult of the mountain, exploring its faith, its power, and its lurid history in five parts.
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This week, we witness the making of The Old Mountain, we recount the dark conquests of the Lords of the Hammer, we discover what dwells in the Lake of the Sorcerer, we learn the truth of the Nameless Saints, and we glimpse the threshold heaven past the Sacrificial Passage…
The Old Mountain
They were self-created, vague notions of intelligence amidst the rawness of the primordial universe, coalesced into definite forms. The first of all beings, the most mighty, and the wisest. Their empty minds were flooded with sense-impacts upon their own births, and they thirsted for more and more, coming finally to grapple with the greatest secrets of all creation, which they alone could study.
But the gods, however mighty, must one day pass. As they delved deep into the cosmos about them, they went about and suggested to as yet unformed intelligences to take shapes to study with them. Yet more gods were dying than being formed, and so they finally begat many-numbered mankind, that which procreates, a self-sustaining chain of life to forge into minds mighty enough to join the divines above, in the stars. The gods became as lawmakers to fledgling humanity through the stars, subtly guiding their cultures in the still raw state of the world. And then, so that they may join them in the heavens, the gods gave mankind the mountain: a sacred space, a link to cosmic realms where infinity dwells, and a trial to surpass all others.
The sweeping vastlands of the great growth of the world rose gradually, until it entered into wild highland, and then out of the mist which obscured far off visions, there loomed a juggernaut of primal stone whose jagged, crag-laden summit reached through where the air thinned and to where the cosmos was attained. Upon this mountain was gathered a great labyrinth of waterfalls and rushing rapids, far-spread glades and deep forests, spans of dense jungle, and in higher places, a sparse, arid wilderness above which there sat a serene, crystalline stillness.
While the gods were teachers and paragons to be emulated and venerated, the mountain was something else. It demanded a fearsome respect, and became the center of all worship and devotion, for the mountain was half another world, and was to be battled with at every turn.
Lords of the Hammer
In an age long past, humanity converged upon the mountain. Since their inception, peoples scattered across the world held in their hearts memories of the mountain, and were awed by this divine dream. Generations passed over the earth and their descendants finally took the first steps upon the unimaginably vast mountainsides, each one spanning the breadth of whole nations. This they knew to be the source of their most ancient stories, and in the minds of every king and chieftain, this was to be a realm nothing less than an annex of heaven itself.
The ancient history of mankind and the mountain is war. With dreams of empire, the wandering peoples clashed in brutal, primitive conflict. Under the shadow of the holy mountain, in the air and rain which rushed down from its peak, every nascent kingdom came independently to the conclusion that the cudgel, the bludgeon, the mace, and the hammer were emblematic of what they believed to be the mountain's fearsome might. Thus was born what the chronicles remember as the Lords of the Hammer.
The slopes of the lower mountain ran red with blood and fire in those days, but even then, the first holy folk were beginning to ascend the mountain. Away from the calls of warhorns and clamour of battle, they found a rich wilderness of strange sounds and sensations, and amongst it all, the first stirrings of the mountain's power—a profound stillness which bred in those holy folk not calmness, but solidity. They came down from the mountain and began to go among the beleaguered peoples who buckled under the zeal of their righteous Lords, spreading the knowledge of their experiences and the power they had found above.
With the old tales of humanity now given life, the monks and their followers humbled the Lords of the Hammer in new battles, and the great mauls of the warrior-kings were handed over in tributes of peace, though they never lost their popular status as icons of might. Eventually, the monks gathered together the disparate peoples and armies, and laid the foundations of the mountain faith. The old Lords became enshrined as some of the first saints, penitents who left this life as winter ascetics in the highlands of the mountain. As the body of cultic lore around the mountain grew and grew, it became to be believed that the early age of man's violent enthusiasm was the first step in the great trial of godhood.
Lake of the Sorcerer
For all that the mountain was regarded as a divine, sacred threshold, it was not bereft of strange places.
On one of the higher elevations, amidst a rocky expanse of sparse vegetation, there sat a small lake. No stream ran from or into it, its depth was such that the bottom was obscured, and it sat absolutely still. An eerie silence pervaded the entire lonesome landscape, seeming more as if it were hidden away than merely naturally isolated. A beetling cliff rose far upwards on one side, the rest was surrounded by tall, sharp crags. And yet, there was a tension in the air, nothing felt still, there was energy in everything, waiting to surge forth, though nothing moved.
The power of the mountain had found use in many facets of life, and over time the high monks, the authority who once reserved that power for themselves, relaxed their attitudes towards more mundane applications of healing and divination. Many believe now that the monks made the decision to permit the open cultivation of power if it meant they could curb the curiosity of those who may turn to the dark, furtive act of sorcery.
At the height of the first age of the mountain faith, where grand cities began to rise from the primitive sprawl, there began to grow a dissident movement in the burgeoning civilization. Most squabbles were theological and never left the debate halls of monks. But for some that was precisely the problem, the holy folk cooped up in their highland monasteries, discussing and learning things that all humanity had once dreamt of. And so, secret cabals began to steal into the mountain, and return able to do things that the people previously believed only the monks could.
But it didn't stop there. The monks were slow to take notice of what was happening below, partly through their own manufactured disconnect to mundane life, and partly the veil of secrecy these ascendant mage lords had thrown over their growing control of the city. There were entire districts given over to these hidden kings, who had begun to desire more than access to the holiness of the monasteries, they fostered a want of earthly power—for what promise did the mountain and these ancestral memories really hold, memories that the most learned were still grappling with? The mountain was a source of power and eternal life to be exploited by those with the knowledge and will to do so.
Had it remained as innocent and idealistic as those first sorcerers envisioned, it is possible that the mountain faith would have been supplanted by a dynasty of magicians who would attain divinity of a very different kind. Alas, the monks, though haughty and esoteric, had truly remained faithful to the ancient dream, and so there was waged a secret war against what they could only call blasphemers. Though it had been distant and half-glimpsed, there walked through the city streets monks who had been to the upper regions of the mountain, and had spied the summit itself. The wizards fell one by one, and the monks asserted not only their authority, but their compassion.
The lake remained a mystery to most pilgrims to the mountain, but the monks knew why it rested so still and dark, and why skulls of saints were hidden so carefully around the lake's edge. There were potent places upon the mountain, why they were as such, none could really guess, but they existed. And the sorcerers of old knew they existed. The depths of that chill water held a prisoner, a magician who, some old monks might have whispered uncomfortably, had attained at least one of the dark gifts their kind had sought in the war against the monasteries, which would render them, it was said, nothing less than immortal.
Saint was a varied term in the mountain faith. It found use for countless numbers of both human holy folk and even the gods themselves, who were the great saints. The term essentially referred to a figure of great sanctity, ability, and wisdom. Sainthood was official status among the monasteries, but folk saints had a certain amount of recognized validity. These were the especially pious layfolk who had performed personal pilgrimages to mountain spaces, either for themselves, family, or community in times of hardship, and they lived on in memory, sometimes even being recognized in the vast hagiographies, the chronicles of saints.
Though there were no settlements upon the mountain, folk did live there. Of especial note were the eminent human saints, the winter ascetics. Mountain worship was marked by long periods of immersion in the mountain wilds, under waterfalls, upon boulders, in the glades, in the snows. It consisted of the reading of prayers, recitation of chants, meditative acts, and time spent living with and travelling through the harsh but powerful mountain nature. This self-attunement with the mountain was what drew and cultivated the divine power thrumming within it. And no greater method was there of attaining this than practicing winter asceticism, that is, living a devotional, frugal existence for a time in the bleak winters of the mountain.
But among the more brutal forms that asceticism took, the wandering gravekeepers were a peculiar breed. That was the thing about the mountain—it was, apart from everything else it represented, the grave of countless people. Monks did not always return from their solemn rites, and most winter ascetics didn't survive their trials. And so there came to be a loose order of wandering hermits who dwelt upon and within the mountain, especially around potent locations from which these strange wildfolk drew their sustenance. They lived forever on the fringes of accepted mountain faith, sometimes finding firm purchase amongst the laity who met them when lost on the mountain, but at other times being likened to the heretic sorcerers of old by some less tolerant monks. In truth, the hermits were capable of curious acts of shamanism with not only the mountain, but supposedly the spirits of the dead upon it, human or otherwise.
The hermits were keepers of corpses, and sought out dead aspirants and pilgrims, burying or mummifying their bodies and cleaning their skulls for placement in monasteries they visited, or in the Sacrificial Passage. They tended to the huts of winter ascetics which some treated as shrines. They also dwelt in and kept clean the nigh mythical skull-temples of the higher slopes, believed to be nothing less than the remains of dead gods from the beginning of time. While winter ascetics, when they returned empowered, were granted the status of living saints, the numberless hermits who dwelt in half-bestial seclusion lived and died as nameless saints to the layfolk who knew of them.
As time went on, the sacred aspirations of the monks were slowly realized to be an almost impossible endeavour. Not a single soul ever made it to the peak of the mountain in the thousands of years since the first humans walked the earth and converged upon the mountain. All have died. And so, there grew out of this the most important and powerful devotional act of all: sacrifice.
The aim of mountain worship was to draw and focus spiritual power over many long years, through immersion within the mountain and its trials. Devotional acts suffused the self with power from the other world it touched, it took that potent but dormant power and actualized it. Once enough had been attained, then would the faithful ascend to the half-hidden zenith and there join the gods among the stars to attain mastery of the universe. But for many pious layfolk and lowly monks, the spiritual power derived from their devotional practices found expenditure elsewhere in mundane life and minor righteous deeds.
The people of the mountain began to offer up countless things in devotion. Prayerbooks and scrolls were quickly produced or printed, brought on short excursions, recited and meditated over, then buried. Mountain power was poured into symbolic images, amulets, talismans, and more, then cast into deep chasms and over cliff sides, or into streams, or under the soil. All of this was intended to create stores of power-given-form for future saints to draw from. But the most important offering above all was the self.
And so, beyond all of their minor offerings, they sacrificed themselves, a ceremonious vow made early in life and upheld throughout, to, upon death where and whenever it may strike, leave behind their power for those making the journey. There was no greater act in the mountain faith than to offer one's power up as a sacrifice to the mythic future figure who would ascend. The mountain was populated by silent, headless mummified icons in its wild places, each one a locus of direct power for every new aspirant to draw from, and so far, all of those aspirants have come to replace their predecessors only a few feet away. New bodies gathered in the mountain wilds every day—new sources of spiritual might for the messiah who will become a god, and usher in a golden age of learning for humanity.
The sacrifice took place in the form of the skull. The skull was a central image to the mountain faith, beyond the hammer of old, beyond even the peak of heaven. The skull was believed to be the "throne of wisdom", the seat of perception and understanding, and in a faith which held scholarly and mental fortitude in eminence, this was the key to godhood—to the aeon old dream of humanity. Bodies were buried and mummified, and they were as simple vessels of power, but skulls remained, apparently, with some vestige or process of life. Through the application of the ceremonial vow to sacrifice oneself, and the inducing of a trance upon the moment of death through last rites, the skull could be removed and continue to accrue mountain power.
Skulls adorned the dark redwood monastery temples, and the buildings themselves were vast storehouses of power. The skulls were those of the lay people and lowly monks, whose bodies were most often cremated and cast to the winds. Saintly skulls, especially those of living saints, received a much different fate. They had cultivated an immense amount of spiritual power in life, and must continue upon that path as best they could. To that end, their skulls brought upon an arduous climb to the bleak heights of the mountaintop by elder monks, or sometimes by hermits, who seek out the one path to the divine summit, a legendary furthest point ever reached by humanity—the Sacrificial Passage.
Here were the skulls of saints set to continue their intense, death-trance meditations, a grand, generational mission to increase, slowly but surely through the centuries, the approach to the peak by erecting a vast bulwark of power for the future saviour to draw upon in that last, momentous push, to the threshold of heaven where there had awaited since the dawn of time the gods, ready to welcome with open arms and minds, their newest sibling.
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