Ruins of Grandeur

“Faltiir,” my father moaned, his voice weak. He lifted a frail arm up from his place on the mat. I lowered myself down to the floor of our tent where he lay, holding his hand with a gentle but firm grip. He attempted to return the gesture, but his wrist barely moved before his hand fell limp.

For a moment, I knew not what to say. After a long silence, I nodded, though I knew he could not see me through his closed eyes. “Do not worry, Father. I’m departing for Vrasta immediately. There are plenty of healers there from whom I can buy herbs and relieve you of your pain. I promise I will return as hastily as I can.”

My father seemed intent on saying something to me, but he did not have the strength to speak any longer. I found it difficult to look at him while he was so gravely ill, and I knew he would have, at most, a week left if I did not bring back the herbs he needed. Fighting back tears, I left him in the tent, took to my camel, and began the day-long journey to the nearby settlement of Vrasta.

The timing of my father’s illness happened to align with a monthly bazaar hosted in the city. Merchants from across the deserts of Abajin would be entering Vrasta over the next two days, making a living out of selling goods. The satchel of spices hanging around my waist would hopefully be enough to purchase the herbs my father would need to get better. If I was fortunate enough, I might even be able to purchase the services of a traveling medic who could return to my tent and heal my father themself.

As I neared Vrasta, I found myself in the company of a caravan of merchants and artisans also headed for the bazaar. One in particular caught my attention, as he seemed to be singing a joyous tune to pass the time. It was imperfect, out of tune and without rhythm, but even so I could discern that this was perhaps among the most beautiful melodies I had yet heard. My camel came within a short distance of his, and I called out to him. “You sing a gorgeous song. Are you perhaps a traveling bard?”

The traveler laughed heartily, his hand covering his stomach as though trying to prevent his amusement from bursting through. “Surely you can hear that I can’t keep a harmony to save myself? No, I am a mere silk merchant from the East. That melody you heard me singing was a tune I picked up from a far more talented man, the Songweaver Odan’o. If you think I can sing it well, you should hear him strum it on his golden kamancheh! Apparently his music is blessed by enlightenment he found in the ruins of Kal’id.”

I chuckled. “The ruins of Kal’id? Those are nothing but stories for children! When I was not more than five, my father used to tell me about that city, built into the skeletal remains of a primordial whale, with the fountain of eternal youth housed in its center. Does this bard truly claim to have seen these ruins himself?”

“Oh yes. If you’ve heard his music, you would believe it. No regular musician could perform like he does.”

“Then surely he would know the secret to eternal life?” I asked, my interest suddenly piqued. If his stories were true, then I would not need to scrape by with my spices for the services of a medic in Vrasta. Odan’o could enlighten me as he himself was enlightened, and I’d be able to offer my father that knowledge of eternal life. I wouldn’t need to look again at his frail self and question if the herbs from Vrasta would be enough. “Where can I find the Songweaver Odan’o? I must speak to him as soon as possible.”

Briefly, the silk merchant seemed taken aback by my sudden enthusiasm. Admittedly, I too was surprised. I felt like a child, obsessed with a certifiably untrue fantasy, but that small glimmer of hope for healing my father eclipsed any doubts I had. “Last I heard, he was headed to Llenan, in the north.”

I tugged on the reins of my camel, and it began to trot along at a faster pace. I waved a brief thank you over my shoulder as I set out for Llenan. The path I would have to follow was a straight line north, past Vrasta and two other settlements. My hasty pace left me with no relief until night would fall on the third day of travel, when I saw a short ways off the dancing lights of nightlife. The sounds of joyous merrymaking danced across the deserts, but I was most excited to hear the soft progressions of an oft-played, well-worn golden kamancheh.

The image of the tents pitched around a massive central bonfire, and circles of men and women dancing around it hand-in-hand, would be ingrained in my head for years. But more notably was the Songweaver Odan’o, disconnected from the celebration a few feet away, his eyes on the excitement and his kamancheh in hand. I waited with a paradoxically urgent patience for the dancing townsmen to grow tired and retire for the eve. When at last they did, the night had grown weary. It was just myself and the Songweaver Odan’o now. I approached him tentatively before speaking.

“Greetings. I am Faltiir, a spice merchant from many towns over. I have sought a council with you, hoping to learn of Kal’id’s ruins you are rumored to have found.”

The Songweaver Odan’o’s voice was raspy, exhausted—it was nothing like the harmonious tone he had sung with just moments before. “Yes, yes. There are always a few like yourself, with a mind you think is open to truth . . .” He trailed off, before regathering his thoughts. “Yes, I have found the Kal’id ruins, and I have learned the secrets of their civilization.”

“Well? What was it like? What is life like, without illness? Without suffering, without grief? How did they do it? Surely you found answers while in Kal’id.”

He hesitated before speaking again. “The people of Kal’id found a way to abolish aging, a spring from which to drink from, but they paid a price. When you can no longer peacefully slip from this world at a ripe age, the only option left for you is a slow, painful death at the merciless grip of illness.” The Songweaver Odan’o shivered, his lip curling in disgust. “I read the scrolls they left behind, and I have yet to clear my memory of their horrifying prophecies.

“They then set to work to cure illness too, with the intentions of ending the cruel fate Kal’id’s citizens were inevitably sentenced to. But progress was slow. There was no convenient fountain this time. Knowing they were sentenced to a grievous death, Kal’id’s inhabitants began to take their own life before disease could do it for them.”

There was a numbing silence. Not just aloud, but in my mind as well. I felt my hands coil into fists without my realizing it. The Songweaver Odan’o must have missed something in those scrolls. Surely there was something that could help me save my father. “But the rumors spoke of a city without illness, without suffering! How, then, could such a terrible fate have befallen them?”

“It seems that taking their own life before disease could strike gave them a sense of control. It was a solution so tempting against such a bleak outlook that even children could not resist it. Every man, woman, and child took their lives themselves, on the streets of that city without second thought. Illness could not wrap its cold fingers around their neck when they did so sooner. Kal’id is still without suffering, without illness, even today.”

I fell to my knees, grabbing at the Songweaver Odan’o’s white thawb desperately. “But what did you learn? About the meaning of life, the universe? There must have been something to take away from the ruins!”

The Songweaver Odan’o took a step back. “I have already told you what you seek. If you cannot derive meaning from it, then you simply are not meant to.” He turned and walked away, and I was left on the sandy floor of the clearing, trapped in hopeless contemplation. With reluctance, I pulled myself to my feet and pursued him.

“Please, take me to the ruins of Kal’id, so that I may see them myself!” I asked, the thought behind the plea not fully formed. “You fail to understand, I cannot go home without first seeing these ruins. My father is ill, and I cannot bear to look helplessly at him again!”

“I fear that you might seek life, but will only find death.” I grimaced, expecting the bard to reject my plea. “However, I fear even more that you are like me, and will not stop until you find these ruins yourself.” Odan’o gestured for the gates of Llenan. “What you will find there is something no one should have to experience alone, so at the very least I will accompany you on this journey. Fetch your camel and follow me.”


After eight days of riding, a massive stone fortress was at last visible on the horizon. “Is that Kal’id?” I asked of Odan’o, who nodded without saying anything. I understood now how, in such a remote area of Abajin, none had yet found these ruins. Only those deeply committed to seeking enlightenment, as I was, could come this far.

I knew from looking at the Songweaver that there was no possibility he had been enlightened. He surely missed something. Odan’o’s frail body, his sunken eyes, were not characteristic of a man who had seen the secrets to life and death. Whatever he believed he had found in there, I was confident in disregarding it as a misunderstanding. There was a great truth in those ruins, and I would find it, even if Odan’o could not. I had to. Otherwise, I would need to look at my sickly father again, and I had not the courage to do so.

When another hour had passed, we at last reached the city. Eldritch spires protruded from the roof, twisted towers surrounding the walls of the fortress like the bony structure of a beast’s ribcage. The Great Whale, left behind when the ocean of Abajin dried. A gateway built into the end of the massive ribcage, decrepit with age, was hollow, once holding what I presumed to be a sturdy gate, but now holding nothing save memories. I disembarked from my camel and rushed inside, Odan’o slowly tailing me. The inside of the fortress was dark, nothing but cracks and slits in the walls and ceiling hundreds of feet above offering any hint of light from the desert outside.

Considering it was too dim to see, the first thing I noticed was a horrific stench. It seemed to waft towards my retreating nose from all directions. I heard Odan’o’s footsteps approach me from behind and pause at my side. He inhaled sharply, before rustling through a satchel. After a moment, he lit a lamp in his hand, casting light on our surroundings. Reflexively, I held myself from vomiting almost as soon as I could view the fallen city from inside.

A pathway of shattered stone led from the gateway through a crumbling city, passing by houses and empty gardens to a once-magnificent mosque. Lining the pathway were the skeletons of countless people. Some were on the streets, some in doorways to homes. Their skeletal remains, untouched by the outside world, were intact, and still took the particular shape of the human form. I could tell from the size and growth of specific arrangements that some corpses belonged to young children, no older than ten. “What . . . what is this?” I asked, hardly able to articulate myself.

“This is the fallen city of Kal’id. This is enlightenment,” Odan’o said, not looking at the bodies around him. His hands were tightened, held into fists. The rumors I had heard in Vrasta claimed that Odan’o had refused to drink from the fountain of youth, and that he had never returned to Kal’id since discovering it. I now understood why. “Come, there is more for you to see.”

He led me up the pathway, toward the elegant remnants of the central mosque. Its interior was just as regal as its exterior, and unworn, the dancing carpentry and hanging ornamentation brought the structure to life. However, the inside also held what I found to be the largest concentration of skeletal corpses. The stagnance of air in the building fostered a certain post-mortem rot, infecting the decor of the room with blackened fungi and an even more abhorrent reek.

In the center of the room, there was a well, the water within glowing a vibrant blue-green hue. Around it, scrolls and tablets had been scattered about the floor, in all likelihood by Odan’o himself when he first visited. He gestured me toward them, and after wrestling with a bout of hesitation, I approached. They were written in a dialect I could not understand, what I believe to be a now-extinct variant of Arabic. But I needed not read the script, as the illustrations were evidence enough of what had happened here.

The first scrolls depicted a city of men, women, and children dancing in the streets, with a stone whale emerging from a glistening fountain behind them. What phrases I could make out from the almost foreign Arabic told me that this was when Kal’id had first discovered their fountain of youth. Knowing the rest of the story from Odan’o, my stomach felt uneasy as I inspected the next scroll. Almost instantly, grief and terror juxtaposed the joy of the initial tale. The whale had shattered, the fountain leaking out upon the stone walkways and mixing with blood. Bright colors turned to dim, pale blacks and grays. Children were crying. Women were screaming. Men were digging at their own skin. Boils, blisters, buboes covered their bodies, no one helping. No one could help. Each was occupied with their own horrific blight.

And then the final scroll came. There was no writing on this work. Just images. The colors were bright and joyous again, and the city was tranquil. Men, women, and children were sleeping together in the streets as family, but it took me not long to recall the sight outside the mosque and remember that they were not sleeping. I distanced myself from the scrolls and fled the city, Odan’o following me in a stunning silence.

Once outside, I looked to Odan’o for some reassurance. He said nothing, shaking his head solemnly, before offering me a drink from his canteen. I poured water into the cap, but as I went to sip it, I caught a glimpse of my rippling reflection and saw Odan’o’s condition in myself. My eyes were sunken, my cheeks diminished. I dropped the cap, letting the water spill out into the sand. Saying no more, I retreated to the camel and took off, unable to look back to the forsaken city. As I departed, I heard the Songweaver sing a song, the same song he had been singing when I found him. Except unlike the revelrous men and women in that town, dancing to his tune, I could now hear it for what it truly was. There was no joy in his kamancheh. He was mourning with music.

I rode the entire path back in a stunning silence, saying nothing as I passed through the settlements I had journeyed to just days before. There was nothing. All of this had been a waste. I would have to stand before my father, I thought as I neared my home, and apologize that the shortcut I had hoped could cure him was nothing but a fanciful illusion.

Foolishly, I believed that the Songweaver Odan’o knew nothing of enlightenment. But he did. He had been enlightened in that city, and now I had too. Enlightenment was a curse, not a blessing, and there was no blessing I could give to cure my father. I would tell my father this, and it would be difficult, but I would do it. And then I would go back to selling my spices in Vrasta, to buy medicine for him. I would let go of foolish dreams and go back to a practical lifestyle, for my father’s sake and my own.

But when I arrived home, I found an elder from the settlement standing over my father’s bed. My father was lying flat, wrapped in ceremonial white kafan cloth. I fell to my knees as the elder solemnly began to recite the Salat al-Janazah funeral prayer. While I had been off chasing fantasies, my father had died alone in this tent.