Through thicket and along barely visible paths our trek continued. We rose with the mist as usual and took our breakfast quickly to keep up with the Urshog, who we soon regarded as travel companions. They would brave the way ahead while we foraged for edible plants, which we would share with them. We made only a short stop for lunch and when we set up camp for the evening, Sarita would teach us the common vernacular of the world below. Then, when all were sleepy, she raised her flute and send beautiful sounds throughout the caverns, accompanied by the Professor’s deep and calm voice singing nonsense words until they lulled us to sleep.
We were so preoccupied with listening to Sarita’s songs and lessons that the Professor and I could not continue to shape granite slices for Chrysita, but the Professor had already told me that to actually assemble her new shell, we would need some more ingredients required to make her shell resistant to everyday forces of walking and carrying. He would try to procure suitable rock from the caverns and traders.
The fourth day came and before time for lunch, we found ourselves in a wide cavern with only sparse vegetation and a well-travelled path. At the end of this path we could see the long and fast one.
It was a carved tunnel, twelve feet wide and at least as high at the apex of its arching ceiling. It cut the natural cavern straight from left to right, paved with small cobble stones of an intricate and interlocking shape that I immediately recognized as shaped in the same way as I had shaped the slices of granite. We came to call this sort of tunnel a 'throughway' in our tongue, as calling it a 'highway' would leave a silly sort of taste in our mouth, so far underground.
We stepped to the edge of the road, where natural rock had been hewn into stairs to meet the level of the road appropriately. The road was well travelled, we could see the lights of a dozen travellers both to our left and our right. Sarita consulted our compass and pointed to the left, northeast, where the City of Slab lay.
The group of Urshog had taken a right here, but when I looked back, I saw them angrily discussing something. The one with the bandaged arm seemed to prefer a different route. We had never been that close with them, only sharing song and food, but not stories of each other. We were long out of sight before they could reach a consensus to their debate.
We also soon met the cadre of mages taking care of this throughway in the form of a construction crew: six individuals standing at the side of the road and replacing worn out or displaced cobblestones with new ones. Two were obviously mages, wearing robes of a cloth dyed in many colours and intricate geometrical patterns, just like Magus Sudhitan and his apprentice, but the colours and patterns were completely different, denoting them to belong to a different cadre, as Sarita explained. This cadre’s crest a white circle on a background split in green and yellow, simple geometric shapes as opposed to the crests of noble houses I knew, which bore a multitude of buildings, landmarks, tools and animals. The other members of the group wore merely vests, hats or sashes of the same colour, with none of the intricate pattern on them, denoting them to be non-mages of differing rank.
I saw one of the mages working a piece of smooth basalt into one of the intricate cobblestones with accurate and swift motions that told of great experience and skill in this particular task.
Among them also stood a golem, unmoving, wearing a backpack laden with more basalt stones. This golem consisted mostly of metal and wood, but it was a golem nonetheless. I concluded that my theory was correct: the atmosphere rich in raw energies did indeed allow magical contraptions to run indefinitely.
We saw many more natural or artificial caves the throughway cut through, some bearing signposts or directions to the villages and towns they served. We also saw roadside inns, one even carved right into the tunnel wall like the abandoned fort we had seen. It felt like a real road, through rock, but with all the things one would be used from one.
We made rest at one of those inns, hoping to trade our jewellery there. It had been built onto a steep slope, where it offered a staircase and ramp much more easily traversable to reach the path above.
On the inside, its main hall consisted of two floors, the upper one hanging above the lower one like a gallery. The doorways were tall and wide, the furniture high enough to host an Urshog or ever a larger being and the chairs even had what seemed to be steps to allow smaller beings to climb them.
We decided to pick an empty table and sit down, while Sarita tried to haggle for an arrangement with her jewellery. We saw in this room a few of the many different peoples of the world below. There were, of course, the Crolachans, all in the mottled dark coat as Sarita, as well as humans, smaller and more slender than us surface dwellers and with hazelnut dark hair and equally coloured eyes that seemed much larger as ours, although it could have been a trick induced by their otherwise fine built. There were Urshog, all a similar dark red as our previous travel companions.
And then there were the beings we instantly recognized as the architects and former inhabitants of the abandoned fort. Sarita had called them Gisrin. They were short, ever shorter than Crolachans, and had indeed large, overlapping scales covering their bodies. They were of a purely white, metallic-reflective colouration, as if carved from a solid block of polished silver. Their skin was of a light grey, their faces pointed, their eyes beady and small. They had a broad and flat tail they slung underneath their belly and forward. Their clothes were wide but bound close with sashes and wraps, probably so that they would not snag on their scales. Some of the scales, especially those close to the hands and face, were adorned with patterns and pictures painted on them.
Sarita returned to our group with a downbeat face. Apparently, the inn was adamant on not accepting barter trade. We left the inn and continued our trek, looking for a natural cavern to make rest in.
The throughway eventually opened up into a huge chamber, directly below the high ceiling. A large bridge had been built to continue the throughway's straight path unimpeded, a ramp led down from the bridge to a large open grassland below. The mist still hung in the air, but our clock told us that the attractive force had passed its apex. We saw below a group of humans, surrounded by grazing animals not unlike horses.
Sarita was overjoyed at that sight. She told us that travelling human tribes would often engage in barter trade. We decided to follow the ramp down.
The humans sat in many groups of ten to twenty people, each around a cast iron stove with a pot of stew or similar. They saw us approaching and recognized our stature and exterior as odd. Sarita spoke to them in ceremonial Pliranti and soon was offered a place at a stove. We joined them and began to haggle. Their words were friendly and they offered us of their stew quite readily.
The group of humans was, as supposedly many humans below the surface, part of a semi-nomadic tribe that had a home village but a large part of their tribe would wander the tunnels and caves for many duochs, taking their herds with them. The horse-like animals grazing all around us were both livestock and pack animals. Their shoulders reached as high as my chest and their feet had three rather than one hoof, on which they clung to rocky slopes with ease, similar to goats in mountainous regions.
These travelling villages would carry their main wares hundreds of miles through natural and artificial caves, trading as much as they could and bring a plethora of wares to and from regions otherwise far off the beaten path while also leading their herds to graze on succulent meadows.
I never had a hand for haggling, Sarita, Anne and Brad however did and we managed to not only pay for a good bowl of stew for each of us, but also bought toll coins sufficient for our passage all the way to the City of Slab, which the humans told us was five more days of travel away. The Professor was overjoyed to get an indispensable resource for fixing Chrysita back up: an entire bag of gypsum powder. He said it was on its own very flexible for rock and could therefore be used to close the gaps between the granite plates, creating a composite material able to withstand all sorts of forces and stress.
Another thing these humans specialized in were maps. With collapses and landslides opening or closing caves quite frequently, mapping the passability of caves was an important part of their lifestyle and income, as they would sell these maps to printers in big cities who would hurry to bring the newest maps to the public.
These maps were not like the ones we knew from the surface. Rather than showing geographical relations, they described paths from one chamber to the next. Cardinal directions and size proportions were kept true, large chambers were depicted in a rather simplistic rounded shape, in which were marked the location of settlements, bodies of water and the degrees measured on the compass to the north and south pole, so one could deduce the chamber’s altitude in the world and navigate by these numbers. Small caverns just usable for traversal were reduced to interconnecting lines, dotted ones, dashed ones, double ones, all denoting how well one could travel through them on foot, with pack animals or even with wagons.
The humans told us they would not continue on the throughway, instead using this pasture to fork off to a distant village they knew, but rest on these rich pastures for the day. When offered, we decided to rest by their side, as we did not see ourselves finding a safe place to sleep in time before the mist would settle down and disappear again.
Sarita joined in their songs and we tried to listen to their stories, most of gone empires now resting in dark halls and collapsed tunnels or of monsters waiting at the edge of everlasting night.
It was that day that I finally felt that we had arrived in a true civilization. It did not matter that the sky was unknown here, I could see very well that these people here below were just like the people above. They just tried to live their lives as well as they could. Peasants, day labourers, merchants. They all were present down here as above. Despite all its quirks, despite all the things exotic to me and other surface dwellers, the world below was still only filled with regular people.