09:12 ST

Backstory

It is said that long ago, this land teemed with life. Soft, furry animals roamed the grass, majestic feathered creatures ruled the sky, and scaled beasts lurked in the swampy dark. They were happy and content. Things were as they had always been, with peace reigning for countless ages.

But this golden age would not last.

A dark, hard winter passed over the land and would not give way to spring. When new life appeared, tentative and green, the crawling frost consumed it. Cold settled deep into the earth, and hunger grew as the land withered. For the first time in memory, the inhabitants felt the pressure of need. From this need rose unfamiliar feelings — jealousy, then anger, then hate. Strife broke out, fueled by hunger, suspicion, and fear, and it tore the land asunder. Everywhere, creatures could be seen leaving the places they’d once called home, desperately seeking food and safety. Those who did not have the strength to walk crawled, and those who did not have the strength to crawl fell asleep in the snow, never to awaken, their names lost in the mists of time.

It is said that deep within a mountain, a lone sorceress worked through the short days and long nights, trying to save the land. She warmed the air. It cooled. She conjured food. It was eaten. She tried to end the wind and the snow, but this winter was implacable and had no end. The sorceress paced in the heart of the mountain, knowing that the land was dying around her and that there was no way for her to stop it. Eventually, in desperation, she did the only thing she could do to end the suffering:

She turned every living creature into smooth, unfeeling stone.

Over the next few years, the sorceress collected these stones, distinguishing them from lifeless rocks through their warm, bright glow. She gathered them inside an enormous cave, which she expanded time and again as it filled. She grew old and withered, but she kept on, carrying stone after slumbering stone, depositing them tenderly, lovingly, and caring for them as if they were her own children. They were all that was left of her world; she would not let anything happen to them. The sorceress knew she could not transform them back, but she would guard them until someone could.

It is said that as the sorceress placed the last stone in the cave, she reflected upon herself. She was old, and she was weak. She would not be able to protect the cave much longer. With her remaining strength, she disguised the cave entrance and conjured up a hideous monster made from the bones of the perished. She harnessed the anger lingering in those old bones and tasked the monster with guarding the cave’s only entrance. Nothing was to enter, and no one that had ever touched a precious stone would be permitted to leave. The sorceress completed her task by wrapping a note around one of the monster’s ribs, telling the tragic tale of her people and the creatures that had once inhabited the world. Her power thus spent, she wandered deep into the shadows of her cave, never to be seen or heard from again.

Eventually, the endless winter subsided, and summer tumbled in. Seasons passed, but the monster of bones remained vigilantly at the entrance to the cave, guarding it against intruders. With each fleeting year, however, the sorceress’ magic weakened, and the monster began to tire.

A wanderer, a stranger to the land, stumbled upon the stones quite by accident. A carver by trade and a lover of solitude, he sought lands quieter than his own. While roaming through the wilderness one moonless night, he was drawn to a light pulsing in the mouth of a cave. A large pile of bones blocked the cave’s entrance, but the wanderer made his way around them, eventually finding himself in an enormous cavern. His curiosity piqued, he wandered further inside — and was astonished by what he saw.

Whole worlds existed inside the cave, within whose caverns were entire lakes and rivers, waterfalls and forests, grasslands, hills, and mountains. Parts of the cave were illuminated by natural light beaming down from unseen crevices high above. Other parts were utterly dark. Others still were blanketed by vast quantities of mushrooms, eerily luminescent in the shadows. Everywhere, though, everywhere, were small, neatly arranged boulders, each emanating its own ethereal glow.

When he touched one of these boulders, the wanderer was startled to feel warmth rising from its surface. He examined the stone carefully, thinking perhaps it was not rock, but an egg. But the wanderer’s hands, calloused and experienced from his hard years as a stone carver, assured him that it was solid through and through. He had left his bag of carving tools just outside the cave’s archway, and he rushed to retrieve them, wanting to know more about the stone’s properties.

The wanderer was so preoccupied that he did not notice that the pile of bones at the cave entrance was no longer lifeless. It had formed into a skeleton which stood tall, a cold light glinting in the depth of its empty sockets. As the wanderer approached the cave’s entrance, his thoughts whirled with ways he might shape the stone, and he did not notice the danger until he heard an ear-piercing screech and saw massive bony claws scraping towards him. Terrified, the wanderer scrambled backwards, trying to put distance between himself and the monstrosity. The bone creature, fortunately, did not follow, and the wanderer was able to stumble away.

The wanderer spent the next few days curled around the warm stone he had examined, hiding and waiting for the monster to leave. As the creature stood guard at the doorway, the wanderer’s hope withered, and hunger took its place. Desperation drove him to eat the glowing mushrooms, which were filling, if unusual; and to drink the clear, flowing water within the caverns. He spied on the monster for hours each day, hoping it would collapse into a pile of bones once more. It was during one of these many hours that he noticed a sheet of paper tied to the monster’s ribs, though he was certain he would never know its contents and did not think much of it.

The wanderer began to spend less and less time watching the monster as, resigned to the possibility that he might never be able to escape, he occupied himself with making the cavern livable. He cultivated mushroom gardens and built himself a stone dwelling with crudely constructed tools. He also spent time with the glowing boulders, wishing he knew their story and beginning to think of them as something more akin to beings than simple rocks. Sometimes he even spoke to them, and fancied that they were listening.

One day, on a whim, the wanderer decided to check on the bone monster. To his surprise, it had lost all semblance of life and reverted back to a pile of bones in the mouth of the cave. The wanderer was conflicted — the cavern was no longer a prison, but a home, and the stones were his silent companions. Eventually, he ran outside and collected his tools, then sifted through the pile of bones until he found the familiar rib with the worn paper attached. The story he read filled him with sorrow. He could not help but sympathize with the sorceress and her struggle to save her people, and he felt perhaps that his arrival here was fate, for who better than a stonecarver to bring stone to life? His mind racing and his heart determined, the wanderer returned to the stone he had touched that first day in the cave. The moment he set his chisel to the stone’s smooth surface, he was struck by a feeling of rightness, and he became tireless.

He worked day and night, carving the stone in the likeness of a species described in the old sorceress’ letter. Initially it had only a vague form, but as the wanderer carved, it slowly took on features and expression — and, eventually, perfection. Then the wanderer collapsed, his work done, and fell into a deep sleep.

Strange dreams filled the wanderer’s head. He dreamed he was the sorceress, watching her people die. He saw the fighting and the famine, and he knew the sorceress’ desperation. He felt himself turn to stone, and a quiet peace washed over him. Then rage filled his body as he was built bone-by-bone into a monstrous guardian; he would guard his stone-bound people for eternity. He felt weakness in his tired limbs as he breathed the sorceress’s last breath with her and let her energy flow outward into the cave. Finally, he dreamed he was the boulder he had chosen to carve. He heard the cave calling, commanding that he awaken. But the call was distant, and he was content. And then something gnawed at him, chiseling at the edge of his existence. He could hear the cave’s call better, and he remembered the joy of wind racing across his membranous wings, and how the sun soaked happily into his scales, and how his children tucked perfectly into his arms. With great determination, he shook the heaviness from him, and he roared. The world fell away.

A roar jolted the wanderer from his dreams. When he sat up, he saw stone shards scattered about a creature where the boulder once stood. The creature’s eyes were bright and intelligent, and it could speak, though in a tongue the wanderer had never heard before. Unable to communicate, yet yearning to connect with the only other living creature around, the wanderer taught the creature to carve stone and restore life to the other boulders within the cave.

Though they were unable to leave the cave, the wanderer and the creatures flourished in the wondrous, seemingly endless home the sorceress had provided. But not everything was harmonious. It would take time to mend the hostility that had grown so fierce between the creatures. Worse, occasionally a boulder that had been so painstakingly carved would not awaken. Its inner glow died, and the stone turned dull and grey. The creatures called them “the lost,” and gently carried them to a place in the cave where light shone down and illuminated the statues. Each time this occurred, the monster of bone would stand a little taller, and its eyes would shine a little brighter. It had been lax enough; it refused to get any weaker.