After five days, of travelling, bartering, learning, haggling and repairing Chrysita’s shell, we had arrived in the large chamber of the City of Slab, or, how Sarita called it in her vernacular we had come to understand: Slabtown.
The throughway opened into a massive chamber somewhat elevated above its floor. The chamber spanned several miles in both directions and a quarter mile to the ceiling. The floor was mostly even and covered in fertile soil in which many crops grew in fields. As the Professor remarked, this too seemed to be a cavity created by forces of weather washing and flushing out an entire layer of softer rock. The glowing mist gathered in huge fanned-out swaths that covered nearly the entire ceiling and as it left the chamber again, regular non-luminous fog began to form, settling on the ground and walls, even forming trickling streams gathering in small pools along the wall. As there was little space between the fertile fields of the ground, it seemed that the population of this city, nay, nation into itself, had gathered in two places: a central city as one would expect on the surface world, and carved into the astonishingly tall walls.
In these walls, windows, passage ways and even colonnades had been hewn, alit with the pale light of moonlight crystals, almost painting the image of dusk sky with stats.
The main part of Slabtown itself sat slightly off centre at a crossing of another throughway that cut the chamber from left to right. As the name might suggest, it was built at least partially under and on a slab. This huge plate of rock rose at a shallow angle from the surrounding soil and where it lifted completely above it, many rows of columns stood, seeming like the needle-like teeth of a deep-sea monstrosity. Under and on this slab stood the buildings of the city, not few of them coming close to a hundred feet in height, some even above two hundred feet. Radially from this city, a network of roads spread out to the few tiny hamlets squeezed in between the fields and the towns dug into the walls.
After we had drunken in the view, Sarita took the first step down the ramp and towards what was essentially, our first goal down here that we actually saw before arriving.
The road leading to the city gates was lined with farmers, merchants and artisans offering their wares, right next to scribes, guides and mercenaries offering their services, none of which missed the opportunity to make us an direct offer.
The wall of Slabtown was at least twenty feet high and of interlocking stones that met at odd angles and with not a single hair space between them. I deduced that in a world with unlimited albeit small portions of free energy, putting detail and ingenuity into every single piece was not a waste of precious flux. The gates on the other hand, were made of wood with iron bracings. As we came closer, I saw that both wings of the gate were made of a single slab of wood with no split or gap visible. What kind of tree would grow trunks wide enough for this? I did not know, but ever since I had arrived down in this world, the inconceivable and the existent had become very close companions.
Before we reached to pass the gate, Sarita turned around and declared her plan: There was a person she knew of here in Slabtown who would procure all sorts of oddities for people with money, commonly rare artefacts or writings from distant places. Sarita hoped to gain information on the odd heptagon we had come through and maybe sell some of our information or possessions.
At the gates, we passed by the town guards – who consisted of mostly Urshog and humans – and were paid little attention to, they threw only a single glance at us, including Chrysita, who had by now a messy mosaic of red and grey granite for a shell. She still had no arms, but at least her internals were safe and her shell was free of weakpoints once again.
The buildings in the city itself were of rather simple make. The lower floors were usually made of stone, laying a solid foundation, whereas the floors above that were of wood, often jettying out further up. I was surprised to see that these buildings had indeed roofs and most of them were either a four-sided peak or even dome-shaped, rather than a simple once-folded shape. I was wondering back then whether it rained in those caverns and while such weather phenomena did indeed occur in rare cases, I today know that the crumbling ceiling of the chambers was the actual concern for these roofs. Sometimes, small pebbles or rocks fell down and onto the roofs and streets of the town, larger pieces were rare and the integrity of the chamber roof and walls was also tended to by its own cadre of mages.
Through busy streets, the nimble Sarita led us through the city, ignoring that we had much greater difficulties squeezing through between the people. She waited for us to catch up at a large central plaza, where at the centre stood a huge contraption that we identified as a larger and much more exact version of our mist clock. It too consisted of a double-sided arm pinned to rotate in its centre and one side did indeed have many specular gem stones of milky white, the other side a large metal sphere with decorative etchings.
There were many levers and gears and faces and measuring sticks that certainly bore great significance for the exact telling of time, but neither me nor the Professor could focus our curiosity for long enough on just one single thing as we traversed the city, be it ever so ornate, thus the precise working mechanism remained a mystery to us. Sarita led us away from the plaza and further towards the slab itself.
When we arrived, we saw it looming above us at least two hundred feet and suspended by the colonnade of pillars at its verge. Right in front of us was an access way of truly huge proportions. It consisted of two ramps coiling around one another, ten feet wide and each for travelling up or down only. In the centre between them was a large wooden platform that was pulled up or down on chains, serving to transport large wares up or down. Before the ramps’ access stood guards that seemed much more aware about their duties than those at the city gates.
Sarita stopped on the large plaza surrounding the ramps’ access, trying to remember the route to her destination. When she was unsure about the exact location, she headed over to two of the Urshog guards and asked them where a place called “Thorin Wyde’s curiosities, goods and oddities”. The Guards seemed awfully suspicious of the girl and asked Sarita to identify herself, upon which she became visibly nervous. She finally retrieved from her pack an amulet and identified herself as Sarita Avantyet, daughter of Chieftain Gobindu Avantyet, here to escort guests of honour to the collector of curiosities for an offer. The two guards looked at each other for a moment, then nodded. They told Sarita what she wanted to know and soon, she was leading us further into the shadow of the slab.
All the houses below the slab were of much richer appearance and Sarita told us that the buildings on the slab’s topside were the most illustrious of all. We found a shadowy corner of a smaller street and finally, there we could see the small but beautiful house where the shop was located. We left Chrysita standing outside, then Sarita led us inside, a bell announced our arrival.
The shop was mostly empty at first. A table took up most of the centre space. On the walls, many shelves stood, filled with image frames, each framing a piece of paper with a picture and paragraphs of text next to it. The human on the far end of the room behind the counter was deeply immersed in a book as large as a small kitchen table, apparently scouring the pages for the tiniest of breadcrumbs he hoped would lead him to... something. It is difficult to me even now to comprehend what was going on in Thorin Wyde’s head or what his true motives were.
Mister Wyde looked up from his book and a smile opened up, showing his straight and white teeth. He was a human of spindly stature in a robe that could fit two Urshogs, his hair was not yet greying, instead being mostly absent, only a narrow crown remaining untouched by a bald spot.
“Salutations. Is there any help...” He stopped for a moment after looking at us for a moment. “...I can provide you with?” He seemed struck in awe. His eyes dashed to Sarita, who spoke up on our behalf.
“We are here to acquire information from your legendary wealth of it.” Like Mister Wyde, she spoke in the ceremonial Pliranti we had come to understand quite well by now. “And I believe we can bestow upon you an object, too, in return for an equal trade.”
Mister Wyde left the counter and came closer to us surface dwellers, ignoring Sarita and not daring to take his eyes off us. “Reveal your origin to me, please!”
The Professor was about to tell our story to him, but Sarita interrupted him. “We seek knowledge and offer you in stead knowledge of ourselves.”
We recognized what she was doing and the Professor took out the page of paper upon which I had transcribed the odd inscription on the green pearlescent heptagon. Mr Wyde looked at it only for a moment and smiled knowingly.
He retrieved a large book from behind his counter and laid it on the table in the centre of the room. He flipped the pages quickly, looking for one in particular and then displayed it to us.
I could not yet read the many simple symbols of that common script, but I could guess a few words. Of far more interest to us was a drawing that was next to the text.
It was a heptagon embedded into rock, but not a frame as at the entrance to the tunnel, no, an entire plate, covered in hundreds of tiny symbols of the odd script. Sarita seemed to recognize something about it, yet before she could inquire further, Mr Wyde had shut down the book with a grin on his face. We knew the time had come to haggle.
The Professor started by showing his seal and his niece followed suit. The fine colourful lines of a university seal are always a mesmerising sight for everyone. Almost as thin as a hair but bright like the embers in a roaring fire. They have a undulating richness of colour that ebbs and turns in the rhythm of the bearer’s heart, never standing still on a single colour, on both the palm and then mirrored on the back of the hand, like an image visible through the other side of thin paper.
The seal of Northbridge University was on both the Professor’s hand and that of Anne: a river in a cleft, a bridge spanning it and three stars above the bridge, showing the north's triad, that important constellation by which navigation and telling time were easy for the experienced.
Mr Wyde was visibly excited and amazed at the sight of these seals. He gesticulated around wildly, offering us all sorts of information. The haggling continued until Anne pulled out her light vial.
Mr Wyde's eyes grew to comical size as he saw the object. He told us that he had heard of such devices and their usefulness in absence of moonlight crystals from previous travellers. In exchange for all our information and the light vial, complete with a full fill of flux, we would receive a true trove of knowledge. He promised us several pages of letters containing the information about the heptagon, the odd script, the pearlescent green material and where to find out more about all those.
While Mister Wyde wrote down everything about this curio and asked the Professor more questions, I continued my look around the many displays. From the little of the script and language I already understood then, I deduced that most of these objects were old historic artefacts of lost cultures, rare and valuable books as well as some magically significant objects that apparently had powerful magic infused into them.
It was during the finalization of this agreement that the Professor suddenly froze. His mien darkened, fright and anger dashed across it. Before any of us could ask him what the matter was, he finished this internal experience with a hushed “rats!” then remained tensed before finally sighing and turning to us. “It seems we are surrounded. Chrysita has already been arrested.”
The Professor opened the door. “I propose to cooperate with the authorities for now.” He walked outside, leaving his staff in the store, and raised his hands.
We followed outside and saw there more than a dozen guards and mages in guard uniforms. Sarita was cursing, insulting the guards and their mothers. I realized what had happened. Chief Avantyet had sent his regards.