Call to Ruin

by Sol Vae

She had been left alone in a quiet forest clearing, with grass still cold from the morning breeze. She tried her best to wait like her father had asked her to, but there was nothing to do here in this shrouded place. He had told her that he wouldn’t be gone long so they could see the ocean soon. It wasn’t that she didn’t like the ocean, it was just that where he went was much more interesting. He got to go meet with some soldiers on a giant, mysterious bridge she had only ever been told about. The only reason he gave for her not being able to join him was the soldiers didn’t like girls like her, which wasn’t that great of a reason. So she stopped the dreadful waiting and went off in his direction, leaving only a questionably written message in the dirt beside her abandoned stuffed toy.

He’ll find her anyway.

The short walk was worth it, she had never seen anything come close to this sight. All curiosity about the meeting faded to breathtaking awe at the towering stone spires that jut from the earth across the gulf between the cliff sides. Their points were tipped with white as their shapes mangled together into a large gateway over the bridge below. They looked like slanted mountains, a strange rendition of the snow capped peaks they pointed towards. Across the bridge was Halheisk, a place her father hadn’t taken her before because of the dangerous weather that plagued the entire continent.

She felt so small beneath the structure. For once though, even other people seemed small too. The dozen or so figures standing on the bridge looked tiny even in their masses when they stood beside the rising spikes of stone, even when they faced the lone person who could only be her dad with his calm demeanor.

When she approached, pressing herself against the gateway, she could hear their faint voices echoing between the stone. It was tempting to create echoes of her own in response, but she was taught better than that. She could explore the place without disrupting her father’s meeting.

So she focused on the distant sound of waves crashing against cliffs. When she peered over the railing’s edge, the ocean was far below her, the sounds traveling far higher than she expected to be possible. Her dad hadn’t told her that water filled the gap between Acoria and Halheisk.

Off to the east, she could barely make out where the steep cliffs gave way to the open sea, letting the force of the ocean rush inwards to cement the barrier between the two continents. The entire experience was mesmerizing.

She would have waited here for her father to come find her, but between the echoes of the constant waves and voices, there was another sound. A high pitched whistle like a bird’s just barely pierced the other sounds, bouncing off the stone behind her. Between the spikes, she noticed it came from a hidden path large enough for someone to pass through. Whatever the passage led to, she would find whatever hid at the end.

Slipping between the different pathways, she followed the sound of the bird’s whistle. Quickly the path led her to a staircase that spiraled downwards into darkness. Many times she had gone wandering the forest near her home at night, even when the thickest clouds blocked the light of the moon and stars. So the darkness here did little to deter her.

The dim sunlight that creeped into the stairway showed a chipped and aged mosaic lining the walls, reflecting the scraps of light that caught on the tiles. Colors dulled by time and dimmed by darkness made the artwork obsolete. Debris crunched beneath her boots as she passed into the pitch black, leaving her to find the way with touch alone. The whistling that guided her here had faded to nothing, even the waves were hard to hear now.

Ahead, she saw hints of light filtering into the bottom of the staircase. When finally she reached the last step, she saw her destination was a mess. There wasn’t a single clear path in sight. Shattered white stone was piled around the room, pillars that had been toppled long ago. As much as they tried, none of the remaining pillars quite reached the ceiling, allowing gentle light from the other side of the room to filter in above the rubble. Hanging above the center of this chamber was a chandelier of long, white thorns of stone that grasped downwards. It was the only thing that didn’t seem broken here, so she decided she would try to make her way over to it.

Getting there would be a challenge. There wasn’t an inch of space in the room that wasn’t filled with debris or clutter. Wherever a pillar wasn’t, broken furniture made its home. Stone benches laid cracked, rotted and blackened tables of wood formed piles of waste around the room, even various fabrics were torn and scattered about. Some of the fabric seemed more recent than the rest of the contents, ripped on some of the sharper pieces of stone or surviving wood. Others must have come before her, but they left no trail of their own to follow.

She broke through the dissolving wood and climbed up a fallen pillar. Above the wreckage, she could see there was a lack of clutter beneath the strange chandelier. From here, there was a small noticeable path that she could squeeze through to get to the small clearing.

Within the center of the room there was a large pit, stone carved downwards into a bowl-like shape. Stairs made an easy way down the four foot drop, almost as tall as she was. The walkway where the stairs descended was a thin thing, dividing the pit in half. Both pits were riddled with junk, but not even 10 strides away was a piece of junk that intrigued her.

An abandoned backpack was skewered by broken wood, painted with red splotches that spread from the pack to the floor. She tried her best to rummage through the impaled thing, only coming back with expired food and broken tools that were unrecognizable. Deciding the contents were too gross to touch, she pulled on the pack until it was at an angle to dump its contents on the floor. One of the tumbling items caught her eye, a journal worn from years of use. She snatched it up and opened it. The language wasn’t one she understood, but the name was one she could pronounce. Zakery Kitra. As she flipped through the pages, she spotted some words she knew. Calamity, Halcorian (where they are!), beautiful, and aevir, which she knew meant river. This was classic elven, then.

“If you were here dad, we could read it together.” She mumbled.

“But if we don’t leave now, we won’t make it to the cliffs in time for the sunset, Marcella.” She replied mockingly to herself. They rarely took detours. Once there was a destination in mind, the road was already set. She thought finding the path was apart of the fun. These ruins were more fun than the cliffs, too. They’ve already been there before. Bored, she sighed and closed the journal.

Out of the pit she was left with few options of where to go. Continuing in the opposite direction of the entrance led her to the far end of the wall, which turned out to not be a wall at all. At least, a standing one. Small shards of colored glass clung to the smooth edges surrounding the giant opening. Looking outside she could see the massive bridge connecting to the opposing cliffside, with dozens of stone spikes protruding from this side to hold the bridge up.

Leaning closer, she noticed some of the spikes acted as spidery walkways from different levels of this place. None connected to here, though multiple paths led to rooms elsewhere on this level.

The waves were also far louder here, unmuffled by the lack of mountains of clutter. She was tempted to stand here longer to enjoy the sound and view, but her dad might notice she’s gone soon and she still had much to explore still. So she wandered down a path to her left that wasn’t filled with layers of debris.

The path had led her to another room. Far from a dump like the previous, it was still a wreck. Two white stone benches stood on either side of the doorway and as far as she could tell, it was all that survived. Scorch marks lined the walls and benches with a layer of ash. Mangled skeletons of small critters laid under their own separate blanket of dust. A thin path led from the entrance where she stood to a stairwell to her left.

A partially shattered stained window was to her right, coating the room in a mix of clear sunlight and the filtered colors of the glass. It left the ashes tinged with reds, blues, yellows, and greens. She could only make out the partial figure of a person, half of their face and body broken and scattered to the world beyond the window. They had knife-like ears that emerged from a white helmet. Despite the helmet the person wore, they were depicted as shirtless and covered in green markings that lined what she could see of their arms and torso. It must have been an elf, one before most had married humans.

She looked back to the stairway, the only way out of this room that wasn’t retracing her steps. As she approached, she began to notice there was a dim pale blue light that offered meager light to the steps below. It came from two thin, straight lines on the ceiling. The light it made reminded her of being outside under the stars with nothing but the moon to light the way. She smiled at the lights as she descended down the faint outline of stairs.

The streaks of light got thicker and brighter until they were enough to illuminate the hallway before her like a torch. More ashes layered the floor, but there were faint engravings upon the wall that she could make out. The engravings depicted a strange and large forest with a canopy so far off the ground it looked comical to her. Protruding from the ground in between the trees were huge spikes scattered around the forest. It looked almost like some sort of fungus growing within it.

Little specks near the spikes appeared to be figures of people, with their knife-like ears being their only identifying features next to their giant surroundings. Each one held long spears as tall as themselves, poised away from the spikes as if they were guarding them. The engravings showed the same thing throughout the length of the hall until she was close to the end. Blocking off the forest was a mountain that rose beyond the limits of the engraving’s depiction, with water trickling down the side. The water continued off the wall, leaving the rest of its surroundings behind. It curved around the end of the hallway and made a path down the center, leading her onwards.

Around the bend she could see three doorways, two of them were open but the middle one had a door made of pure white stone. The river that was carved into the floor turned away from the doorway into a wide room that opened up to the outside. Pathways formed by the stone spikes outside led from this chamber to others above and below here.

Just as she moved to open the stone door, she heard a voice.

“Marcella! Come here!” It was her father calling in a hushed yell. Who probably wanted to drag her right out of these ruins and back into the boring forest she’s known all her life. If she could avoid him just for a little longer…

“This place isn’t stable enough to be down there, get back here!” Footsteps pattered down the stairs, sounding loud within the emptiness of the hallways.

She rushed to one of the pathways leading outside, each one with an elven word carved into it. She would have to ask her dad one day to teach her the language. At random she chose a ramp that led outwards and weaved among its brethren below the bridge.

Far below her were the crashing waves that resounded up the cliffs into her ears. She inspected the stone path as she walked but didn’t notice any cracks that would lead her to believe it wasn’t stable like her father said. So instead, she found a small path that led to a balcony on the cliffside and walked to it. It was a small clearing between the dozen or so ramps that led from chamber to chamber, going every which way.

Staring out from here gave her a beautiful view of the ancient structure that has survived a full Calamity. The elven dominion may have fallen, but the care in which they crafted their buildings has not withered and been forgotten. She wished she could have stayed here for hours. But it wasn’t even a minute.

“Marcella, there could be monsters down here!” He was lying. He never spoke in hypotheticals, he would know if there were monsters. If all he was going to do is scare her out of this place, she was going to continue her exploration.

She hurried off the balcony and picked a path that would lead her downwards, deeper into the ruins. But as she walked, she noticed the small pieces of stone falling from it with each step. She froze. The ramp shuddered beneath her, groaning.

“Stay right there!” She could hear the loud pounding of running, it sounded as if his feet were clacking against the ground. Below, the ramp groaned again from her weight atop it, and she wasn’t going to wait for it to give its struggle up. She backtracked to a sturdier path and paused to find a way up to a higher level.

“Don’t mo-” The speaking was cut off. She looked down towards the open room. It had stopped speaking, and it was not her father. It growled. The creature was huge, probably three times her height. Sharp claws lined its hands and feet, and its teeth were built like razors. Black feathers covered its body, with a streak of red and orange running from its eye down to its tail. She covered her mouth when she screamed.

She bolted up the cliff, trying to find the fastest way up. The way she took was thin and shook as she ran up it, there was no chance it would support that giant. With all her might she hoped it couldn’t fly. But the path she chose just led to another balcony, not inside. Behind her, the pathway of spikes rumbled beneath the weight of the creature who was frantically searching for a way to her. She looked around and noticed that there was a ledge above her. The cliffside held as she scaled it and quickly she found herself standing on a small path carved out of the rock. There was an opening along it.

Inside was another hallway, fully illuminated by sunlight. Somewhere in the distance, she heard confused voices.

“Marcella!” In her father’s voice. But it seemed to be coming from somewhere above. A loud thud reverberated throughout the entire hallway, followed by a shout and the banging of metal on stone.

“Help me!” It was her own voice. No no no.

“No! That’s not me dad!” She yelled out in a panic. She had no idea where to go from here, this place was a maze. The hallway she was running through went on forever before she reached a corner. Heavy footsteps came from behind her, with a clack every time it hit the ground. Claws on stone. Around the corner she heard cracking, like ice when stepped on. When she turned it, she saw her dad.

“Run run run!” The words were squeezed out between his teeth with panic. He held out his arms for her and as she got closer he yelled out, “Jump!” Without even thinking she obeyed. He reached out and caught her, pulling her away from the monster closing in behind her. When she looked back, she saw what was about to happen.

The ground here was damp, water dripping down the walls and from the ceiling and had once pooled onto the ground. But the puddle that was there was shrinking, faster and faster through a miniscule opening in the ground that was expanding. Her father stepped away with her safely in his arms. The monster sprinted at them, lunging forward. Its foot stepped in the puddle and the ground parted for its leg, scraping into the beast as it fell. As its body hit the stone, the rest of the floor gave way. It let out a high pitched cry that she felt in her bones as stone after stone piled atop its body below.

After leaving the crumbling hallway, her dad set her down. Where they stood now, the hall looked almost brand new with not a speck of dust to be seen. Her dad inspected the ceilings here as he spoke,

“When I tell you to stay somewhere, I generally mean it.” His tone quickly turned from lighthearted to dead serious, “Places like this are very dangerous, which is why I have told you again and again you are not old enough to explore abandoned places. Not everything abandons them.” He led her farther down the hall into the chamber it connected to. Wall to wall the room was filled with bones and the shreds of clothing and various other items. In the corner was a nest made from a mixture of torn cloth and grass and sticks. Her dad looked again at the strange pristineness of the small length of hallway they just walked through, so unlike the rest of the ruins.

“You could have found the same dead end that creature found, you are beyond lucky young lady.”

“I wouldn’t have come here if you brought me to your meeting.” She said defensively.

“They were very mean people who were just as dangerous as this place. The clearing you were supposed to wait in was warded. Now, are you hurt at all?” After she shook her head, her eyes dropping to the floor and then to the journal still clutched in her hands,

“I found this.” She mumbled in the soft tone of the guilty. He took it from her grip and placed it in his pack before taking her hand without saying a word.

“We’re going back to the house so we can both get some rest.”

They were both silent as they left the ruins, her father leading her out with ease. As the sunlight hit her skin once more, she asked,

“How did it know my name?”

Her dad thought for a time before answering, “That creature we met, they have keen hearing and are intelligent things. I imagine it heard your name and pieced together that I, the person speaking on the bridge, was your dad.” The thought scared her. He had never told her that monsters were so smart before…

When she looked back across the bridge one last time, she saw solid stone blocking the way across. Maybe he would explain what happened another time.