The pack-laden trumba march with purpose and the wagons continue to roll. They stop occasionally for mealtime and leisure, mostly to bolster morale after the robbery. What was once a desperate march spurred on by danger is now instead driven by light pockets. It’s just as well; the highlands out here are rather sparsely populated, and the scant few villages wouldn’t do much for the caravan’s rest or profit.
Eventually, highlands soon give way on one side to a dark, watery horizon. It accompanies the caravan for another several days, until a span of dun savannah begins to rise from the other side. The dark waters continue on in between this land and the foreground, moving slowly closer as the caravan advances.
Finally, progress shows when the ocean is just by the caravan’s side, off the side of a steep, rocky cliff. Now it’s clear that the edge of this land-mass is advancing towards another, cut off by a broad, frothy channel. Down below, the occasional trade ship floats by on large, billowing sails and the might of many oarsmen. Their hulls are adorned with statues of gods and goddesses, old heroes and figures of infamy breaking the low waves with ease. These ships pass in either direction, some back towards Paakoponde, others travelling the channel ahead of the caravan.
Soon, a great bridge begins to loom in the distance. It’s a great arch wrought from unnaturally-smoothed stone, as if commanded to rise from the mountains beside it. This strange artifice is covered over by the whims of the S’vargan aesthetic, with any number of ridges, spines, parapets, spires, and towers at either end. Looking at a work of S’vargan grand architecture is often more like looking at rows of stony teeth, overlaid with trestles, flying buttresses, spiralling inlays, and other architectural garnishes.
To a person’s eyes, these are positively overwhelming.
To a shasii’s eyeless sight-hum, it’s oddly pleasing, or even satisfying; it’s like watching a key fit into a lock, or two hands interlacing. Something about it just feels right.
The arc of the bridge is dizzyingly high, carrying the caravan almost fifty meters over the channel below. It spans the whole way across, with plenty of space underneath to allow ships passage. This isn’t to say it’s just an archway to them; glancing down, there’s an obvious guard posted at both ends, as well as the bottom by each cliffside. There seems to be some sort of great lock they can raise to prevent ships from passing, though currently, the stone mechanism’s cranks are slack and the obstruction is far beneath the water’s surface.
As the caravan draws closer to the bridge’s entrance, it begins to slow; likely just in preparation for passage. Fortunately, the trade regime of S’varga is not particularly restrictive towards anyone coming from this direction. While there may be an embargo on Karnakan or Skilhouran goods, the caravan has little to hide from them…
Well, at least it has little to hide for now.
As pleasing as the designs may be, Ane shutters her wagon’s window. She has never been much for heights. Instead, she keeps her keen ears pricked for the sounds of voices, footfalls, and surf — they’re the only things that will let her know when it’s safe to look outside again.
An irrepressible shudder travels down her spine. She’s had terrible dreams about bridges like this. Of course, in her dreams, they’re always higher and steeper and the wagons always tip over backwards and fall from them…
While the caravan is stopped, the wagon drivers approach the gate towers and converse with the bridge guards. Then, after a brisk inspection — mostly consisting of strolling along the train and shrugging — the caravan is permitted to proceed. It approaches the ornate, filigreed gate of the bridge, which then creaks open on its massive metal hinges. With that, the trumbas huff, and the wagons begin to roll across.
Ane opens her shutters, eager for fresh air the very moment she hears the terrain change under her wagon’s wheels. Though there were rumors that her father was a tzuskar — Dynkala marveled over it the moment brown-maned Raunia’s daughter popped out with a shock of green hair and swirls like curling ferns — dizzying heights have never been her friend. Like any true shasii, though, the underground doesn’t faze her in the least. She even relishes the cool, damp, earthy smell of it, all fresh and alive… If there were herbs she could burn to make everything smell like newly-turned soil, she would. Some tunnel-shasii placate this feeling by bringing along jars of deep-dirt on their travels. It never really does the trick, though. Besides, it also requires carrying a jar of dirt and being willing to explain yourself.
Up ahead, beyond the bridge, is a vast savannah that slowly grows drier and brighter towards the horizon. After a certain point in the distance, it seems to give way to sand, and then to a searing brightness of shardlight. It looks like a truly harsh environment, where the heat is scorching and the land is burnt and inhospitable.
Fortunately, the caravan isn’t going there.
Instead, the path begins to go lower and lower into the ground, sloping down past the soil’s surface. One can clearly observe a bisection of the terrain for a moment, with the tall grass reaching and rooting down into tamped-down earth. This then gives way to a layer of rock, striated with all manner of mineral.
Any shasii knows, of course, that this won’t last for long. Once the caravan has traveled below sea-level and into the deeper ground, it will grow spongy and soft.
Now the caravan has begun its last stint towards S’varga through the cultivated tunnels of the surrounding lands. When the shardlight finally recedes behind the wagon train, it grows dark for the moment, as the troupe travels along that midway zone between the harshness of surface shardland and the thriving environs below.
In time, the caravan drivers light torches and some of the darkness peels back. Mounted hireling affixes the wagons with a lit torch, tucking them securely into the iron sconces at each entrance. For Ane’s senses, this makes little difference, but the warm glow is comforting nonetheless.
In time, the walls grow to the true, deep-ground squishy consistency, as fibrous and porous as a sponge. Soon after, the occasional aperture appears in the tunnel walls, releasing blasts of steam and water like a geyser. There are growing things clustered all around these, from lichen to fungi, all the way up to shrubbery and fibrous ferns. They just out wherever the heat-vents are found, regardless of where it might be in the tunnel — on the ceiling, the floor, or straight from the walls.
A vulre bleats in the distance, its call echoing off the walls of a side-tunnel. This is the welcoming call of S’varga.
Fortunately, there’s no real risk of getting lost or being attacked; the roads are all marked with signage engraved in stone tablets. Moreover, it’s very clear which is the well-maintained, well-bricked road down into the city proper. Tunnel-bandits are warded off by the many guard-posts down here, though Faceless still creep in the low light. Still, S’varga’s armed patrols and strategically-placed paletorches do well to keep them at bay.
All of that will only be a real problem if Jarrik has to take the caravan into the side-tunnels and smuggler’s passages. Fortunately, as long as the caravan isn’t being chased by the authorities, it can still use the safe paths.
Then again, that probably won’t last forever, will it?
Soon the tunnels give way to large atriums, all filled with the local flora and fauna, the air alive with the hum of stinging cave bees. Most colonies are confined to their own farms, however, and Jarrik doesn’t seem intent on stopping at one of those… No, he’s heading straight for S’varga itself.
Soon, the troupe pulls out of another tunnel and into a grand atrium, the size of which must be greater than most lakes, or possibly even small mountains. It’s so tall that one can only see the ceiling if they really squint for it in the darkness, and even Ane has trouble reaching it with her full hum.
The city makes good use of the clearance, for the first thing one sees when arriving in S’varga is a massive city wall. The edges of it are lined with ridged and toothed parapets, swooping trim, and interlocking symmetry. Every guard tower boasts a tall, sharp roof lined with spirals, like a drill. Then the walls themselves seem to display feature imaginable, from the practical — arrow-slits, murder-holes in the gates, and so forth — to the impractical, like the number of tall, elaborate statues.
Some of the sculptures depict familiar figures from history, like The Last Mage and his long beard, or the herald that sang of Animus’ downfall. Others are more obscure statesmen and religious figures from S’varga’s past. One of them is more prominent than the others: A tall, veiled woman with a sweeping mane of hair and a shrewd smile. She wields a tall staff of sorts, with a wicker-like ball of a head woven around a central orb. There are folded stone wings on the sides of the staff and teeth at its other end, like that of a key.
The caravan and its trumbas don’t give half a damn, however, and make their way for the nearest clearing outside the walls. It’s easily able to find one in the vast expanse, shoved into a corner of the atrium near an underground river and a few heat vents. There are also a few tunnels nearby, which presumably lead off and away from the city. It’s the sort of spot Jarrik favors on these trips, keeping in mind that an escape may be necessary.
Best of all, it’s a short walk from the city; when the caravan is ready to display its attractions, there’s nothing like a jaunt away from home to attract bored citizens.
The wagons begin to slow, settling into a crescent.
(Thank you for reading! Please like, share, and comment below if you enjoy! Best, P&R.)