Our travels along the throughway towards Bev-Shturam went along easily. We made good distance each day, according to the markers as much as twenty miles, a good pace for a military march. During one of our discussions, our urshog companion mentioned a person he called his matron. When I inquired whether she was his mother, he gave us some deeper insight into urshog society.
It happened to be that urshog did not have women and men as humans or indeed any other people of the worlds both above and below had. For the sake of scholarly pursuit, I shall write down here what our urshog companion and Sarita had been able to convey to us clearly.
Urshog are born in litters of two to four pups. Pups are not sentient, instead more like animals. I had seen them before as mentioned, primitive in appearance with long, narrow snouts, long forelimbs and a very strong inclination for bodily labour. They are used – and at times sold – as work animals to draw carts, carriages or ploughs. Once they reach an age which I calculated to be between sixteen and eighteen years old, they will rapidly mature into brutes, of which our urshog companions is an example. All brutes are male and possessed sentience. Most banners send away their fresh brutes to earn a name and once returned, be welcomed back. Once the brutes reach an age which I had calculated to be around thirty to thirty-five years of age, they again mature into matrons, females, able to bear pups. Only one in five pups ever reaches this age. Urshog matrons are – according to Sarita – known for their cruel cunning and brutal minds. They are supposedly some of the most skilled war leaders and work organizers.
Upon maturing to a matron, an urshog will often found their own hold, similar to a large family. A hold would consist of one to three matrons and their consorts and their pups. Consorts are the first brutes a matron chose to mate with, they will then take care of matters of fighting, honour and representation, while the matron is busy bearing pups, organizing the hold and delegating tasks. If a consort has already matured to be a matron, that matron’s consort will take on those responsibilities and so on. Several holds form a banner, similar to a clan, and each banner is specialized in a single task, be it hunting, war, farm labour or even acting troupes.
Sarita told us of such troupes, who would re-enact famous battles or duels in a form of stylized combat, with real brawls and strikes on a stage, that would tell histories or myths for the entertainment of the audience.
Finally, after up to two decades of leading and birthing, a matron will die at an age calculated by me to be not more than sixty years. This odd lifecycle and gender relation of the urshog would certainly be a subject of study in itself and I may one day dedicate more of my time to this, but for that moment then, I was content with what I was being told willingly.
After just two days of travelling, we arrived at the city’s outer border. The Throughway had a fork and as we followed the markers, we came to a gate of solid wood with metal bracings, swung open and guarded by an entire contingent of armed personnel, busily checking carts and travellers. They immediately became aware of Chrysita and asked us all sorts of questions of the purpose of our visit. We told them that we were a scholarly expedition seeking knowledge within the city. Although they accepted this answer, they demanded an extra toll for bringing heavy load work equipment into the city, with a nod to the golem. The Professor begrudgingly paid and we were let in through the gate.
A short way through a tunnel further and we saw the first buildings. Rest stops, stores, taverns and all other sorts of businesses that travellers might frequent were advertising with signs on the road, windows and doors hewn into the wall of the tunnel. The tunnel soon broadened into what seemed to be a plaza and at its far end we saw an opening into a chamber. We followed the road across the plaza to the opening. That’s when we finally saw the actual city.
The chamber the city was in was vast, truly vast, in any measure. It was cylindrical in shape and stretched unfathomably far both up and down from our position, a coin dropped from where we stood would take a few breaths’ time to reach the bottom, and it was at least half that distance up as well. The other side of the cylinder was already disappearing in the haze and luminous mist from mere distance. All of us stood in awe of this vastness, in its centre a pillar of that green pearlescent material, perfect, smooth, heptagonal in cross-section and as thick as a hundred tree trunks taken together. To it clung with chains and magically shaped rock buildings, entire palaces, plazas, streets and promenades winding around the pillar in a spiralling fashion. Arching bridges connected them to the buildings carved into the outer wall of the cylindrical chamber, where too a city sprawled in many layers up and down, cranes on the edges moving platforms or crates up and down the verticality of the city and carts along chains horizontally. There was busy movement on all the roads and streets of the city. All between them, the luminescent mist rose in thin swaths from the floor of the chamber, apparently channelled so by specific construction to guarantee optimal light throughout the chamber. At the ceiling, the mist was gathering in a circular groove around the pillar, creating something of a pool to grant even greater illumination than just the thin swaths.
As we gawked at the marvel, even Sarita being overwhelmed, people of all kinds shoved their way past us towards a broad bridge ahead. We now realized we had little idea where to start our inquiry into the nature of this world and so, we asked one of the guards whether there were any academies or houses of learning in this city. The guard directed us to Vault of Fregna, a library upheld by a local noble lord. It would be found in a further up area that was sectioned off as the place where most rich people presided.
It was here that our urshog companion addressed us. “I have to depart here. I thank you for your company and the opportunity to honour you have given me.” With a nod, he acknowledged me specifically. “But I have to return to my banner and report of my great feat. I am glad I could accomplish this in the presence of someone as distinguished as you.” He nodded to the Professor, then made a bowing gesture before all of us.
It took me back somewhat. I had grown to like the towering figure of the urshog, even if he had been a silent companion. We all repeated the bowing gesture and I answered him directly. “I am glad to have travelled with you. May your deeds bring you an honourable name.”
Through the sharp, exterior teeth I saw something of a smile, then he held up his coinpouch, still rich from the sizeable bounty on the Hochon-Yi, even after our tolls to travel the throughway. He took a coin for each of us out of it and handed them to us. As little as I knew of the currencies of the world below, I recognized the coin as a significant sum, probably able to buy food and lodging for a few days.
“If you are ever in the range of the Spears of Bultahiin, tell your names to any urshog you meet and I am sure word will reach me. It would be an honour to tell you my name.”
Our urshog companion turned around and went to the guard to ask his own directions. With that, he was gone into the crowd.
We made our way up the spiralling streets, unable to persuade and of the crane or cart operators to take Chrysita on.
“I sure hope we get to stay a while here so I get to repair her damages and maybe give her arms again.” Professor Scutolith said in a hopeful tune, showing first signs of exhaustion. By the guard we had been pointed to a large building carved into a protruding rockface very close to the ceiling of the chamber.
I felt Brad’s dismay at the Professor’s enthusiasm and abstained from comment on it. The spiralling street came to a gate before what was supposedly a quarter of the city reserved for the better off, as seen by the armaments of the guards and their wearing of various crests and patterns on their chest, indicative of whom they served and protected. After some haggling, we were finally let into the quarter and moved to the Vault of Fregna. It was lavishly carved from a solid piece of stone and hanging over the street as if tilted out of the rockface. We decided to knock on the broad wooden doors and soon after we did, the door was opened by a human man of the typically short stature. He wore clothes of a very fine fit, as if tailored for him just this morning. His hair was dark and thick, his face showed little age and his dark brown eyes had a very distinct look of scepticism on them as he scanned us from top to bottom.
“What can I do for the gentleman and ladies?” He asked in an unimpressed tone, as if we represented the lowest from of visitors he had ever had the misfortune to open the door to.
Anne stepped forward. “We come seeking knowledge and were told that we would find it here.”
The short man raised an eyebrow. “Are you affiliated with a cadre that contributes to the Vault of Fregna?”
Again, we felt the sting of being outsiders. Anne tried to remain diplomatic. “No, we are not, but we are seeking to form an affiliation if possible.”
The man turned his head slightly, as if repeating himself without intonation to make a point of his exasperation. “Those from outside cadres may only gain access to the Vault of Fregna by a significant contribution. May it be a monetary one or one of knowledge or skill.”
At the word monetary, almost our entire group seemed to sigh in resignation, but the Professor seemed to have an idea immediately after. He hectically took his backpack from Chrysita’s back and rummaged through his notes, to retrieve the drawings and transcriptions of the heptagonal holes I had made. He held them up to the man’s face, causing him to lean back as to even see the letters prooerly. His facial expression suddenly turned from annoyance to genuine surprise. After looking at the drawings for a while, he cleared his throat and asked us inside. I have to admit that I had not expected this to happen so smoothly.
Inside, the building had narrow corridors and very broad rooms. We were led into the room on the first right from the entrance, a sort of lobby with cushioned couches, armchairs and sofas of varying sizes. Chrysita had remained outside, more than capable to defend our backpacks from whatever might come in the well-guarded quarter of this well-guarded city.
We took place and the short man asked us to wait, then left the room. The room’s decorations reminded me much of some older university buildings, having various paintings on the wall, most commonly of people having a distinguished look about them. Even though many were not human, I could tell they were of high standing and good behaviour by the various looks of dignity, honour, resolution and grandeur they had been depicted in. In one corner, a taxidermized beast stood, not dissimilar to a bear, but with much larger ears that seemed perked up, making it appear like a menacing, clawed mouse of unusual size. It had been fixed in a posture of great aggression and threat.
We did not wait long until the short man returned in the doorway and announced: “I present to you, the wise and honourable Magus Alfvin of the Seekers of Fregna.”
The short man stepped aside and another man, not much larger but much older, came into the room. He wore the robes of a cadre, a dark blue with straight golden lines meeting in circles and triangles. He too had the darker complexion and hair of the humans of the world below, but his hair was almost completely grey, with some already entirely white spots and a few dark streaks remaining.
“Be greeted visitors.” He said and walked into the room, directly towards a specific armchair he seemed to have chosen already, then sat down. “I am Magus Alfvin. I have been told that you have made a recording of some divine works. Can you please show this to me?”
The Professor gave the drawings to Alfvin, who then leaned back and studied them with furrowed brows and growing approval. Finally, he returned the drawings to us and spoke with fingers pressed onto each other, fixing the Professor most of all with his gaze. “I would like to know how you happened upon both of these gates and where.”
With mere glances, the Professor, Anne, Brad and I held a short council, then agreed. Anne began to tell our story, from our departure from Northbridge, on the surface, to our arrival in Uvraitam. During the entire time, the magus listened closely and nodded and when we were finished, he leaned back, keeping his gaze on us, studying each of us before finally closing his eyes, inhaling deeply and sighing.
“This what you have shown and told me could be considered a sizeable contribution to the Vault of Fregna and you could have access to any information you desire, but you will not find the information you need. Because it does not exist.” He seemed to wait for a moment and when we said nothing, he continued.
“What you found is sometimes referred to the wanderer's gates. A myth or fable of sort among some cultures of this world. Have you ever heard the story of the mother and the wanderer?”
We shook our heads.
“We here at the Vault of Fregna occupy ourselves with the study of the deepest and most mythical of lore and sometimes, that requires hunting the faintest and tiniest hints. I myself have found myself travelling all throughout the world looking for indications that might not exist; so you would understand if I question your claims.”
There was another silence. Sober and downbeat, Anne simply replied. “We do understand.”
“HOWEVER!” Magus Alfvin continued. “We would not host some of the most exotic writings, artefacts and samples if we simply discarded anything we heard of as hearsay. As a matter of fact, our patrons often demand us to go after the very hearsay many other scholars would discard. Sometimes it leads to empty rooms where riches were promised, sometimes it leads to truly golden cups endowed with impressive magics.”
A glimmer of hope ignited in me. This scholar might have told us that they have no information to lead us back home, but he might just help us in our quest to seek it.
Anne seemed have had the same thought. “So you will aid us in our search?”
Magus Alfvin contemplated for a moment, then nodded. “Under certain conditions, yes. The scholars and expeditions of the Seekers of Fregna are always busy looking for all available information and proof on the issues our patrons commission to us, this leaves our schedules stretched quite thin, even if you were willing to pay a substantial fee, the waiting times could be dozens of duochs, half a vertoch is not a rare waiting time.”
I recalled that a vertoch was a 144 duochs, or 28 years. It seemed hopeless to commission them the usual way, which left the question open for those certain conditions he had spoken of.
“The cadre that takes care of the Vault of Fregna – the Seekers of Fregna is our name – take on a large number of duties, not just seeking secrets but also surveying lands, probing rock for ores and gems, exploring new paths and all such things. And with such tasks being our vocation, I can see that you offer us something valuable in return for our services.” Alfvin again folded his hands and deepened his gaze. “It takes more than one high-ranking member of the cadre to take on a new task or even look into certain prospects. Before I can gather and convince others, some time might go by. In the meantime, I would ask a favour of you. Would you be willing to undertake a short expedition to a nearby site?”
Instinctively, I sat up straight and corrected my pose at this proposition. Anne again held council with us using mere glances and only Brad seemed less than eager to accept the proposition. “Gladly. If provisions and lodging can be taken care of, we would be willing. We are already an expedition by ourselves.”
Magus Alfvin stood up with a happy smile. “Very well then. I will arrange for board and lodging for you in a nearby inn and we will meet here again tomorrow, my duties for the day will see me busy before I can make more time than I have already diverted to you.”
He walked over to Anne, who stood up as well and shook his hand. After this agreement, we were shown out, handed a letter and direction to an inn and stood once more on the streets of the truly vast chamber.
We decided to head for the inn right away, that way, we would have some time to look around the city and what it had to offer.