Chapter 21 – A Meeting in the Wildernis
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We stood before the red, clawed, ape-like creaturs. Hunger and hostility burned in their eyes. I clenched my staff in my hand and was ready to unleash destructive magic at my enemies when Sarita stepped forward, gesturing us to halt. She waited for everyone to drop their defensive stance, then turned to the creatures. She raised her hands and approached them slowly, keeping her hands up for them to see. The creatures now started to be interested in her, coming closer, their slimy tongue hanging out and orange eyes fixed on Sarita. 

I observed with worry and fear as the little girl approached three vicious looking beasts. When they had finally met an arm’s length apart, the creatures sniffed the air around her and she moved her hand slowly to their eye level. The foremost of the creatures raised its hand and slowly met hers in a gesture of greeting. The foremost member relaxed, then barked something at the other ones. 

The creatures let up their aggressive stance and so did we. We sighed and came closer, making sure to keep our empty hands raised as Sarita had done. 

“What are these beasts?” I inspected them closer. I now noticed that the dark spots that covered their shoulders, back and outside of their limbs seemed thicker and stiffer, almost as if they were bony scales of some sort. “I have recognized many animals and plants down here as familiar, but these things are definitely something beyond compare.” 

Sarita told us that they were no beasts, but Urshog pups. When we asked what an Urshog is, she set out to answer, yet before she could, another creature came onto the camp clearing from the thicket. 

This one was most certainly humanoid, no similarities to apes, however many similarities to the creatures. Apart from the man-like built that reached at least seven feet of height, there was the red skin with thick dark knobs, the set of large, interlocking teeth outside the mouth and the same fiery orange eyes, sitting deep in a socket full of darkness. 

“That is Urshog.” Sarita said. 

The man was currently fastening his belt with one arm, is right one being bandaged up and resting in a sling. He wore a shirt made of coarse, blue linen and pants made of thick leather. 

He stood there, assuming a ready pose and drawing a knife-like object from his belt. He barked something to the pups, but before any could react, Sarita again raised her hands and stepped away from the pups and the campsite. We followed her and the Urshog man relaxed. 

His face showed confusion and turned to the Professor, then addressed him in a language I could not place anywhere near familiar and a voice that bore characteristics of a file working off a hollow tree stump. 

Sarita stepped forward and addressed him in the same language. The two exchanged a few words, then she turned to us again and informed us that these people too were heading for the long fast one and that the others had to return from a hunt before a consensus could be reached as to how we were treated by them. For now, she recommended to make camp close by, then our two groups could engage in trade if willing, and make arrangements to travel side by side. 

I was still somewhat taken aback by the creature standing before us. All the animals and people we had so far seen were rather small in stature, yet this one towered above us all and the creatures called “pups” could well overpower any Crolachan or Human, from the surface or from below. 

We made camp a few dozen yards away from the Urshog camp, which we could well see through a sparse line of bushes and trees, and before we could even set up our oil burner, the rest of the Urshog party came back. They carried tied to a long spar, a large animal not dissimilar to the cave hogs I had seen at Uvraitam. The hunters were obviously cheerful and made what could be mistaken for a wood plough’s attempt a laugh. It were four more of the adult Orshogs, all very similar to each other, and two more of the pups, which were carrying large sacks on their backs. 

It did not take them long to walk over to our camp over to us and Sarita again to play the diplomat. She had retrieved from her backpack a peculiar wooden box with clasp and lock, which she would occasionally open, retrieve a piece of jewellery, offer it to the Urshog, and then put back after they rebuffed her each time. 

A long back and fourth in unknown languages later, we could finally turn to our rations while Sarita explained the situation. 

We could travel alongside the Urshog for as long as we wished, but there would be no trade and no sharing of rations, which we accepted. 

When I asked Sarita what that box of jewellery was, she replied that she had planned another attempt to flee, during the convoy to the other town, for which she had pilfered her parents' ceremonial jewellery to sell for supplies. She would have gathered more, but we had cut her plans short either way. 

It seemed our princess was a rather shrewd and clever girl who had helped us already more than we could have known. Brad even lauded her, which I refrained from doing, solely for the reason to not encourage her thievery. 

I observed the Urshog some more. I saw that they took cuts from their prey not with a knife, but tore shreds away using their horribly pointy teeth, stripping the flesh off the bones, then spat the tattered meat on a searing cast metal plate on their stove. They also fed their “pups” with these tatters of raw meat directly from between their teeth. I still had an issue with imagining these people that held their children as mere livestock but also wondered how old these pups were and at what mental level compared to human children they were. 

I turned back to my own camp and while listening to the Professor explain the stones and minerals he had seen since leaving Uvraitam, I noticed that Chrysita, resting behind him, had already received many chips and cracks along the edges of her broken granite plating and that her apatite rods within had lost their clean white shine as well. “Professor, do you not think that we should repair Chrysita soon? Her interior parts are exposed to damage and grit.” 

The Professor nodded self-content and retrieved a block of red granite from Chrysita’s backpack. It was about a foot in length and four inches on the other sides. “I made sure to bring this from the quarry exactly for this reason. Once we get ahead faster and have more time to rest, the two of us can see what we can achieve with free energy at our fingertips.” 

As a demonstration, he encased his index finger in an aura of energy and cut through the granite block like a loaf of bread, taking the rough slice of granite and forming it in his hands like clay. “This needs some more work.” He turned the crudely shaped plate in his hands and tried to fit it in place somewhere on the golem. “But you can tell how this will work, do you not?” 

I nodded. He cut off another slice and tossed it over to me. “We should probably polish it first.” He rubbed his own slice with the ball of his hand in an attempt to get the same mirror sheen as on Chrysita’s grey plates. 

Sarita retrieved a wooden flute from her backpack and began to play. The notes vibrated and fluttered through the stone walls and the Professor soon joined in on the simple but relaxing tune while working his slice of granite. 

I turned to my own slice. I started by remembering the way that rock usually reacted to force, pressure and heat and then the formulae which would trick the stone into assuming that state by the strength and warmth of my hands. Then I focussed the energy from my surroundings to my hands, feeling them become stronger, mightier until the stone bent to my will. 

Normally, when shaping material with magic, a mage would draw up the exact measures needed, set aside the correctly calculated amount of flux powder necessary for the transformation and then cast the spell to achieve the result in one go, according to the numbers. Making it by hand by only applying magic as the material is being shaped would require too much flux to be economical, but down here, such a thing was of no concern. I still needed practice with my hands but found myself oddly consumed by the process. It seemed to me that my aptitude had revealed itself to me through the most unusual of means. 

The Professor saw my work and budged in. “I have to admit, Havellan boy, you show a great aptitude for wielding magic in the moment. Especially during our escape from the guards.” 

I tried to remember anything I had done particularly well, but found nothing. “To be honest, it was just that one spell you gave, cast me over and over again in different situations.” 

With a smile and a wave, the Professor rebuffed my self-doubt. “Nono, you truly were excellent in the way you used it, one could almost think you had already learned war magics under our friend Gnaeus Corbula.” 

I shook my head. “I was a mere deckhand without a degree, I would never think he would go against the laws and teach me magic.” 

“Well, either way, he must have recognized something in you, Havellan. I can tell you, being chosen as an apprentice by someone of his experience, you will under his tutelage become a powerful man, boy.” 

I wanted to believe in such a future, but every time I tried, the image was blurred to dust by our current situation, that we might never return to the surface, or not in time to return to our old lives. I nodded merely, hoping to not to betray my false-hearted thoughts to the group. 

Time to lay down came and we settled into our sleeping bags.  

The smell of seared meat hung again in the air when I awoke. The other camp was already talking in their raspy voices, stripping more meat off their prey and spitting it onto the metal plate. In our camp there was a light too, pale and dim. Anne was holding one of our moonlight crystals, carving off the top layers with the back of her knife, turning it as if she was sharpening a stick, the light growing with each scrape of the steel. In this growing light I saw that she was sitting directly before Sarita, who had been given Anne’s sleeping bag while Anne herself had wrapped into the cloaks we had been given as gifts. 

She had her eyes on the girl, her face bearing an expression of tired hope. Although our bath was not long ago, her hair had already started to stick in strands when not tied into a tidy bun at the back of her head. At the sight of the peacefully rest girl, at the verge to womanhood, she was thinking something nostalgic, I could tell, but what? Did she have a family back home? A husband and child? Or maybe just a sweetheart dear and wishes of motherhood? Or lay her future plans in wholly different directions? 

I was still contemplating this beautiful but tired woman when she saw me. The light from her crystal must have finally reached my face. “Already awake, Havel?” she asked me with a soft smile. 

I nodded. “But I think I could sleep another hour or two.” 

“Don’t, there is ground to cover.” She took a bandage and a dead branch and attached the glowing stone to its end, making a makeshift torch, which she then rammed into the ground. “These Urshogs will soon leave and if we lose them, we might lose them and our opportunity for safe passage.” 

She was right. I got up and helped her wake the rest. Our breakfast was hurried. We might not really travel with the group of Urshog, but staying close by would help us in case of trouble; we hoped. At least they seemed to know where they’re going. 

We were back on the path, following the Urshog group in their steps. Sarita assured us that we will find the long and fast one soon enough and if they were to deviate from her known path, she would recognize. We took her word at truth’s worth and worried not. 

It was before lunch that the Urshog ahead of us suddenly stopped. They looked around, searching for something they knew was there. We caught up with them and Sarita asked them what the issue was, but they seemed adamant to shush her instead. Danger was about, we all could tell. It eventually stirred in a thicket not far from us that was quickly swept away by a single motion. 

Vines, tree trunks, bushes, even rocks were blown away as smoke in a breeze. We had ourselves become victims of an illusion spell. 

In a now visible opening in the wall, we saw there a group six Crolachans. I recognized none of them, but the front most wore robes dyed in the same pattern and colours as Magus Sudhitan and even leaning cockishly on a similar cane. He was however much younger and smiled something smug. 

The five other people were armed and armoured with spears, short arming swords and hardened leather gambesons. 

The mage addressed us in ceremonial Pliranti and explained to us that we already knew their reasons for ambushing us. He promised that no harm would come to anyone cooperative. He also turned to the Urshog and told them that it did not concern them and they could simply walk away, whereupon the Urshog looked at each other, spoke a few raspy words and then nodded. They relaxed their pose, said a few words to Sarita and went further down the tunnel. 

Sarita spew words that we could tell were curses and expletives both at the Urshog and the mage, whom she called Jayatan. He however merely put on a smirk. 

The Professor stepped forward. “No, we will not abandon her after having rescued her, you will have to take us down by force.” 

I could feel the air tensing up. I had the feeling this potential conflict could not be explained away by a misunderstanding as the previous one. The mage made a commanding feature and the armed guards advanced towards us with their weapons pointed forward. 

I readied the same spell I had used to repel the tentacled menaces back at the dark lake, yet before I could project the energies forward, Chrysita’s might frame walked past me. 

With a swift kick, she launched one of the guards far into the dark thicket. Before the other guards could react, she had spun around and toppled another guard. The rest started to panic. 

A loud BANG tore apart the disquieted screams, a projectile hit the Chrysita’s shell with a sharp cracking sound and she took a step backwards. I readied my spell. 

With a loud scream, Sarita leapt forward and latched onto one of the guard’s helmets. She tore and pulled from behind, trying to make him fall. She was cursing and screaming like a fury, but all she had achieved was that he had dropped his spear. 

I had gathered all the necessary formulae. Without flux, I would have to get closer to have any real impact. With two quick steps I closed the gap the another guard and thrust my staff forward. When it hit the guard’s helmet, the force of wind hit him like a hammer, robbing him if balance and sending him hurtling backwards towards the mage. 

The last guard left capable tried to flee, running into Magus Jayatan, who struck the guard aside with his cane. 

With wrath and hatred, Jayatan lifted his cane and a point of crackling lightning formed at its tip. He aimed exactly at the Professor, who still stood ready but inactive. 

It was only when Jayatan brought down his cane towards the Professor that the latter spring into action. A single twitch by the Professor’s staff and the lightning  shattered into a hundred tendrils on a single spire of stone that stood before the Professor in a blink’s suddenness, bearing a shining point of ore or mineral. The tendrils shivered, flickered in rage over their missed target. 

Professor Scutolith smiled as Magus Jayatan tried to gather his thoughts for another spell, but the Professor gave him no time for it. With a single gesture of his arm, the floor beneath the Magus was swept away, leaving him tumbling in the air for a heartbeat before hitting the rocky ground face down. 

All the guards were on the floor or somewhere in the thicket. With a last gesture, the Professor commanded the rock to form shackles around Jayatan's ankles, wrists and neck. With a stoic slowness the Professor addressed him while the captive tried to squirm and force his way out of his shackles. 

The Professor put the crystal of his staff to the magus’ temple with threatening pressure. “The girl is now under the protection of me, Professor Doctores Ottegar-Scutolith, Transmutor Praestabilis of Northbridge University, exalted by the Pact of a Thousand Kings, Bruder Brockenlied of the Druids of the Lodge of Sturreland. The next time you intent to take someone from our group, you should bring more or at least better wielders of magic.” 

There was a silence. The only sound remaining was the strained grunts of Jayatan. 

The Professor turned around. “We should catch up with the others. These guards will work away the stone shackles within a few hours.”  

Sarita did not pass on the chance to spit on the angry but powerless magus. We set out to follow the Professor.