Chapter 20 – The long Run
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We reached the entrance to the Vrata gardens, where the Professor and Anne were waiting. They had noticed the alarmed state the town's guard was suddenly in, but said no further about it. We hurried inside and through the rows of vines, up the ramp at the end and into the next chamber of the stack. 

We arrived at where I had sensed the rock wall to be thinnest; less than five feet. The Professor opened the cask of remaining flux powder and both of us grabbed a fistful, then we pointed our staves at the rock wall between us and freedom. 

I pressed the formula through my mind directly at the rock and it flowed aside like a pile of leaves in the autumn winds. Soon enough, we had our escape route. We hurried through and then closed the wall back up again. Our pursuers would surely be able to tell we had done something to the wall, but they wouldn’t be able to follow any time soon. 

We emerged into the chamber beyond the wall and saw ourselves faced with a tall palisade gate, manned by at least three guards. 

It was at this moment that I knew I messed up the plan. “I must have misjudged the location of that gate!”  

The guards saw us. I do still not know whether they recognized us, but it was too late to think, just enough time to act. 

Arrows were already flying, Anne and Brad dove behind bushes, but the Professor and I stood our ground. A stomp from the Professor’s staff, the ground trembled, a crack run forth, past the gate and coughed up dust. 

I swung my staff forward, compacted air materialized in a screen, arrows flew through it and landed bereft of any force on the ground before us, not even sinking in. The dust settled around us, yet remained suspended in my screen. The Professor set out to another spell. He took a step forward and struck out with his staff.  

With a yell of exertion, he swung it in a single circular motion from backwards to the ground to forward. As the tip touched the ground, it scooped up a boulder of soil and rock as large as a person tall with ease. He flung the projectile forward towards the gate. With the sound of hundreds of cracking spars and timbers, the gate was smashed down from its hinges. 

Brad and Sarita were the first to dash forward. The guards pointed their aim towards them, then another tremor shook the ground and dust again filled the air. All five of us dashed through the concealed gate and around a bent into the wilds. 

We made a short stop to account for everyone. I tried to apologize for my poor planning, but the Professor would not have it. “Nonsense, even with this delay we are ahead, let us not lose this now! Is everyone here?” 

I began to see again and could indeed confirm that all five of our troop were present. We set out with a fast pace, simply down the narrow cave we were in, through bushes and tall grass on a path rarely travelled. 

The Professor lead the way, saying that Chrysita had found a suitable hideout for the night. We would have to hurry along for more than an hour before we could rest there easily. 

It did not take long for us to hear voices of pursuers behind us. They caught up quickly and exhaustion started to set in. These guards were probably better rested than us and had we not put most of our equipment on Chrysita beforehand, they would have surely caught us by that point. 

The voices came closer and while all of us were worried, it was Sarita whose face spoke the most terror and panic at the prospect of being caught. 

A fork came up ahead and the Professor, already breathing and leaning on his staff heavily, turned to us. “We need to take a right here.” He then turned to me specifically. “Havellan, how much flux does your pouch still hold?” 

I checked. “Two fistfuls at most but at least one.” 

He checked his own pouch. “Well then, I shall use up mine in completion. Remember that.” 

I nodded. I knew little about being a mage of war, but I do know that members of a group declare to each other their reserves with special signs to ensure that each knew how much to rely on them. 

The Professor stepped into the righthand path of the fork, waited for us to step in as well and then turned into the direction of our pursuers. 

“I have not done any illusory magic in a long while, let’s hope this works.” he began to recite mnemonic devices and incantations. Slowly, the plants, rocks and even soil before us seemed to turn into vapour, but as this vapour condensed and swirled together, I saw that nothing was in fact taken from those material things. The torrent of vapour surged in speed until it had become thick enough to make before us a new wall of rock, soil and plants, not to be discerned from the real one. The Professor was done and visibly exhaled. “This should keep for a day. Still, let us not dawdle. 

We wandered briskly through unknown underbrush and found the thin footpath harder and harder to follow in the light of our vials. I noticed myself trailing left and right, unable to keep my pace straight under the weight of exhaustion. We all had travelled far even before the celebration on our scouting expeditions and sleep was at hand. 

Eventually, we saw the familiar shape of Chrysita standing among the bushes. She was more heavily laden than ever, carrying all our rucksacks safe for Sarita’s. She stood next to a narrow crack in the cave wall that revealed behind a hollow space of a tunnel that winded far into the darkness. The Professor, using the last of our flux remaining in the cask, widened the crack as if it was a tear in a leather coat. With just barely enough width to get Chrysita through, he deemed it wide enough and we all climbed inside. 

I had little strength to talk, but Brad seemed to have a few more words in him. “I hope we truly are safe here, Professor.” 

I found myself a nice open space to lie down just enough strength to crawl into my sleeping bag. I finally lay down and closed my eyes as the Professor closed the crack in the wall. 

 

I awoke again when Sarita was shaking me. The fur on her face coruscated silver in the pale moonstone light. The others were already up and we had a breakfast of Vrata biscuits soaked in water. I had tried eating one dry, but it turned to powder that would cling to my cheek and gums resolute to not let go until I had washed it down with the contents of my waterskin. 

Sarita, now unshackled and untethered among us, was silent during breakfast. She chewed and looked at the plush toy, seemingly deep in contemplation. She had just left her entire life behind to follow a group of strangers and it was all thanks to that nanny. We did not even know her name, but Sarita surely did. 

The Professor meanwhile told us of his further plan. “I want to reach a city called Effudopolis, I hope Sarita will be able to guide us to that place. There, so Magus Sudhitan, we will find more information about the heptagonal tunnel and the writings on its frame.” 

At those names, Sarita raised her head. “Effudopolis?” 

While the Professor tried to formulate his plan into simple words, I instead addressed him with an inkling I had. “Professor, you said the Magus Sudhitan told you about this?” 

“Yes, he did, Havellan.” 

“And did you mention you want to go there?” 

“Of course, I did, I was most grateful to him for the information he had bestowed upon us.” 

“Then we cannot go there, Professor, they will anticipate and maybe even catch us there.” 

The Professor wanted to raise disagreement but then paused for a moment. “I did not think of that. Do you really think they can get there before us?” 

“We have no knowledge of the topology of this world, they might already be ahead of us.” 

We turned to Sarita and tried to ask her what she knew that could help us. She pondered for a moment, then simply replied “City of Slab”. When we asked her exactly what that city was, she said words like “refuge” and “in between”. It seemed that this City of Slab was close to a border or even in neutral space, allowing people to seek shelter there. We needed only a short while to deliberate on this decision. We became once more horribly aware of our inadequate preparation of our plans and of how useful Sarita could prove to be. 

The girl told us that if we were to descend from here and get further distance to Uvraitam, we would come across “the long and fast one”, which we took as some form of tunnel, maybe one of those maintained by the groups of mages the Magus Sudhitan had told us about. Sarita told us that she knew a path outside of her father’s territory that would take us further away from the City of Slab, but closer to this tunnel, which ran directly to the city. 

The Professor had meanwhile taken out the compass he had been gifted and seemed even more confused about it. When I threw a glance at it, I could see that the brass disc had pointers on both sides, but one side had actually two. I first thought it a clock with two equally long hands, but it made no sense. Sarita eventually took the compass from his hands and promised us she would explain it to us while we wandered. 

The Professor and I opened the rock wall and emerged into the mist-lit caverns. Sarita took the lead and showed us a wild path that more than once drove us to tether us together like inside the volcano’s shaft. While we were walking, Sarita explained the compass in more detail. 

The side with the two pointers would indicate north and south, as a normal compass, if held horizontally. The two arms – one had a tiny bead of red gemstone embedded at one end, the other a blue one – would always point opposite of each other. But if one were to hold the compass vertically and align it in north-south direction, the two pointers would instead point down at a different angle each. As Sarita explained it, there was a ground to this world, as deep as anyone can go before meeting nothing but lava and noxious gasses. At this very ground, on the north and south pole, was located each a vast chamber housing a vast mountain. These mountains were what the pointers were pointing at. By measuring the angle of each pointer, one could deduce one’s altitude and relative position to the two mountains and one’s own position, a mathematical method I well knew as triangulation. Sarita, obviously well-educated by mages and scholars, was versed in this method herself. 

The other face of the compass had only one pointer, but it extended to both sides of the centre point, similar to an astrolabe or compass of the surface world. It too had a tiny bead of gemstone, this one cloudy white, but only on one side. Sarita explained to us that this side was like the arms of a scale when held vertically. Whatever force caused the mist to flow up or down would also influence the cloudy gemstone. Thereby the pointer would change its balance and tell us if the mist was currently rising or falling, how quickly it was doing so and how much time was most likely still remaining before the flow reversed. 

All of us listened and watched closely as Sarita was explaining the tool to use and we already realized what a great gift this compass had been. Thanks to the exact nature of the measurements, we could find any altitude and longitude as long as we knew the corresponding coordinates, similar to an astrolabe. Sarita did not know the coordinates of the City of Slab, but she knew the specific altitude of “the long and fast one” and that it ran southeast to northwest, which would help us find it much more reliably. 

The thicket did not stop but get even thicker as we descended towards the east. We had been on the road through both light and darkness and were looking for a suitable place to rest for the day when we came upon a large chamber that held many trees and vines suitable to serve as shelter to us. In this thicket it was that we noticed that somebody else had already had the same idea. A camp, complete with stove and sleeping bags, but no one to camp there. All seemed left rather disorderly about the place. Sarita’s brow laid in furrow. Had we looped back and run into one of the search parties we were ostensibly fleeing from? But Sarita seemed to have a much different idea and tried to assuage our fears, when something came out of the thicket behind her. 

The creature looked almost humanoid, but more like an ape walking on its short hind legs and the knuckles of its long, clawed arms. It looked haggard with dark red skin dotted by spots of even darker red along its limbs and back. It had no lips, instead bearing huge conical teeth that interlocked tightly. It came closer in a slow gait. Its shoulders were about as high as my lowest ribs and it would not be taller than me standing upright, but the vicious teeth and clawed hands showed me it was dangerous enough even if we were bigger. Then more of the creatures emerged from the thicket and came towards us. All of them growled and barked at us. 

One of them opened its mouth and unrolled a long, slimy tongue. I could see in the orange eyes that there was hunger in their gaze. I tightened the grip around my staff and I felt that both the Professor and Brad had gotten ready for the confrontation. 

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