We are the People, and we do not forget.
(The Secret History of the People)
It began many, many years ago, a thousand moons before your father's father ever drew his first breath in this cold and uncaring world. We forget not the old legends and stories, for to do so would be most unwise. Nothing truly dies in this world, remember that well - if you cease to remember the lessons learned in the past, woe be to your people.
The time I speak of was one of gods and demons, when fox spirits still roamed the land in the form of beautiful maidens and Raven spoke with the tongue of a man. The supernatural was natural, and warriors respected and praised the gods even as they feared their vengeance - for vengeful they were in those long-ago days; vengeful and petty and occasionally cruel.
There were many gods that the People paid homage to. Every river and mountain and creature that crept or crawled on the earth or flew above it had a spirit inside, and they guided the fates of men according to their whims. Even when they were revered though the gods were not to be trusted, for even the most benign water kami had a cunning nature that could turn to mischief in the blink of a lash. Most of the spirits kept invisible and silent, choosing to weave their webs of trickery unseen by prying mortal eyes. There was one, however, who choose not to follow this path, instead quenching his lust for destruction and malice out in the open where all could gaze upon his vast power and despair at their own weakness and mortality.
They called him Dormin, the Horned God of the Mountain. When first he appeared the spirit spoke with honeyed words, appealing to the chieftains of the scattered bands with promises of power and great victories over their enemies to the south. As long as they followed him, the god promised, their armies would never fail and their arrows would never shatter. Rust would never taint the blade of one who followed Dormin, of that they were assured repeatedly. All he asked in return was the dedication of each slain enemy to his name and a shrine in his honour after the victory - nothing more and nothing less.
The great khans and chieftains chose to believe him, greatly desiring the wealth and land held by the civilization that bordered their steppes. It was a fertile land of rolling green plains and plentiful springs; guarded from invasion in the north by a large mountain range and protected from sieges in the south by the great ocean that lapped at its borders. The citizens of the great cities of the empire grew indolent and arrogant, certain that no one would ever dream of attempting to attack their mighty nation. They feared not the nomads of the north with their bows and horses, calling them simple savages and worse things still.
That was their first, and final, mistake.
A great bridge of unimaginable scale was the only entrance to these lands, and it was guarded by puissant spells of magic. The great structure was further reinforced by armed guards, who stood watch day and night, bearing horns to alert and awaken the sleeping city-dwellers if something or someone managed to thwart the mystical powers of the bridge. Neither of these precautions proved steadfast against the incredible power of Dormin however, and very soon the proud inhabitants of the coast were under attack from fierce warriors on swift horses, warriors whose eyes glinted like burning coals in the hot glow of war.
The People never would have stood a chance if it had not been for Dormin. They were expert horsemen and their arrows were like divine bolts smiting the wicked, but this civilization was far more advanced than they and had the weaponry to prove it. However, no weapon had yet been fashioned that could defeat Dormin, and he laid waste to their great cities and left the architecture in ruins. What could any man do against a god who breathed blue flame, smashing and destroying entire buildings as he went?
The fight ended remarkably quickly. The survivors of the empire were sold into slavery, going to what fates only the Gods knew for sure. The victors very quickly moved into what was left of the towns and villages, although they did not use the ruined buildings and temples for anything other than ceremonial purposes - the People have always lived on the plains with their brothers the horses, and so it shall always be until the seas dry up and the Moon is devoured by the Sun. We are a restless folk who languish if kept behind stone walls; not for us the cold steps of marble or suffocating interiors of constricting houses. A fine horse with a shining coat and intelligence in his eyes is riches enough for us.
One of their temples was converted into a shrine of worship for the great god Dormin, he who had led the warriors to victory. The herds grew fat and sleek in these rich lands, and so too did the People. They grew indolent and careless in this new world, much like the civilization they had invaded several moons before, and the lazier they became the more powerful Dormin seemed to become. By the time anyone noticed that things were going amiss it was far too late: Dormin, strengthened by the blood spilt in his name and the worship of his followers, had grown in might to such a degree that none could control him. The wicked old spirit demanded young maidens and a tithe of flesh from the People's herds, and because the People loved their horses as they loved their sisters and daughters they were driven to make war and raid upon all those that had once lived amongst them in the old lands. Thus, the demon's lusts drove the People to break their own honour and become no better than bandits, stirring those that had once been peaceful neighbours to animosity, strife, and despair. A shadow of darkness fell upon the land.
A meeting of sages and shamans was called. Wise men and holy healers from all over the land gathered in a hidden place, discussing in secret what to do about the fell beast that threatened the very existence of their people. Theories were expounded upon and discarded like so many dandelion seeds upon the wind; as surely as someone came up with an idea it would be dismissed as being impractical, implausible, or just plain impossible. The council was nearly at its wits end until a young shaman of the Bear totem arose, marking himself for all time as the greatest trickster and hero our tribe has ever possessed.
What he suggested was not all-out war with Dormin, or even the demon's ultimate destruction. To challenge him in the open would be suicide, for there were no holy men or warriors among our people who had the strength needed to face the wrath of an angry god so mighty. No, cunning was the only weapon they had now, and they would have to wield it with a duplicitous hand and a crafty mind.
Sixteen containment vessels, the young shaman theorized, sixteen guardians created with powerful magic and bound to the land with one purpose only - the imprisonment of Dormin's spirit. They would guard it fiercely against any and all who might come seeking to release him, killing the interlopers if it was absolutely impossible to deter them with anything short of absolute, physical, destruction.. However, it would take all of the assembled wise men working together to bind the black devil, and there was great personal risk involved, for the calling-upon of that much magic would threaten to kill many and leave others withered far beyond their years. None of them ever took heed of these warnings, thinking only of the greater good and its accomplishment. Brave souls!
Sixteen locations were chosen, and sixteen seals were drawn upon the ground with the tip of a magic sword forged in secret with great spells of power. When Dormin saw them scratching in the dirt at the final spot with what looked like a rusted blade he laughed, and all Hell seemed to ride behind his chortling. He taunted them, asking if magi of the People often dug in the dirt like dogs for their power.
Out of the group stepped a young man, the same nameless shaman who had proposed the idea in the first place. He struck the holy sword against a rock, and the rust fell away to reveal gleaming metal underneath. The sword was raised aloft into the air, and the demon suddenly quailed in horror at the energy that radiated from the shining blade, shielding his eyes from its brightness. Too late Dormin realized he had been outwitted and outfoxed by those he had always condescendingly called 'mortals'.
The shaman brought his sacred blade down point-first into the centre of the seal they had drawn, screaming arcane words in a long-dead tongue that were echoed in turn by the holy men that stood all about him in a circle. He drove the sword into the earth up to its hilt, and a great flash of light accompanied the strike, followed by a mighty ravenous wind the likes of which had never been felt in those lands before or since. Blinding pillars of brilliance shot up from the ground and into the sky, piercing the very clouds themselves.
Dormin was ripped asunder, screaming curses to the very last. The great bulk of his power was split amongst the sixteen seals the shamans had made, but not all of it; just enough of his malice and will remained unfettered to blast the land barren in every direction of the winds for miles around. Many men and women died that day, caught unawares by the blast of supernatural hatred that washed over them and ripped the life from their bodies like ebbing lightning. Everything has its price, you see - the greater the accomplishment, the greater the cost.
From the ground in the places where Dormin's essence was sealed arose great beasts of stone and earth, created from dust and yet as alive as you or I. The mark of the seal was also the symbol for life, and life is what it gave these wardens of Dormin's prison. They took the shape of every aspect of the demon's spirit - some stood on two legs, some were crowned with curving black horns of ebony, and some even flew the sky with mighty wings that made the sound of thunder when they flapped. The shaman set them all into a deep sleep, to be awakened only if the lands were intruded upon by one seeking to release Dormin from his fetters.
Great totems were quickly constructed within the very temple that had been dedicated to Dormin himself, and the golems bound to them by magic. If somehow the demon ever managed to take control of his captors, it was thought, these icons would keep them tied to the land and unable to escape beyond the boundaries of the cursed realm they already inhabited. As I had said, the stone beasts were of a great size and strength; precautions had to be taken in the event something went amiss.
The Holy Sword was the one weapon that could seal Dormin, and as a consequence the only weapon capable of breaking the magic that held the golems together. It was like a key that could lock and unlock the door to the demon's cell, and like a key, it did not care about what lay behind the portals it was used in. Thus the sword became the most heavily-guarded relic of the People, and harsh penalties were laid down for anyone trying to steal, or even touch, this most precious and dangerous of tools.
When the totems had been placed in their alcoves and the last spells of binding laid upon them the People left, fleeing the now blasted and cursed land as swiftly as they had ridden upon it several years before. Dormin remained a dangerous and malicious presence in this place despite the bulk of his power being locked away, and it was not safe to linger nearby for long. Once again our ancestors became a wandering people, the land they had claimed and fought for barred to them forever more.
That was long ago, so long that the rivers have changed course in their beds and grass has sprouted in the land blighted by the demon in those ancient days. The Forbidden Lands are still there, yes, and Dormin remains sealed within the sixteen, growing in malice with each generation that passes. Many moons may have passed since the shaman locked him away, and many changes may have come to the People, but we do not forget. We teach our children, and they teach their children, and so it will always be. The mistakes of the past will not be repeated as long as they are remembered.
I have spoken.