At the centre of the small dingy room, Rubin was lain in an equally rough bed. His companions and Zsófia watched in anxious silence as the old woman, Edda, carefully ministered to his health.
Despite seemingly working primarily with mundane tools those who paid attention could feel the ether breath as she subtly manipulated the magic that hung in the atmosphere. The refined skill amazed Zsófia, whose own magical ability was preeminent in her village, however she couldn’t even follow the intricacies that were being weaved right before her eyes. What’s more, something felt strange about the ether in this place, wrong somehow.
“Come, let’s give Edda space to work, and Rubin room to breath.”
Zsófia pulled out of her focus on the magic to notice that the others had exited the room with only Telfor and his gentle hand on her shoulder returning to retrieve her. She recoiled from him, memory of his decision to have her arrested still raw, but nodded her head in agreement before they made their way out of the room.
In the hall, Pan was talking with the woman who had met them at the bar. He called her Lily, Zsófia remembered and thought, She’s pretty. Lily was a short, and slender woman, with soft looking long dark brown hair and even deeper brown eyes. She had similarly sharp features to the people of Zsófia’s village, though her skin was a smooth, light brown unlike Zsófia’s greyish green. The mixture of familiar and alien left Zsófia feeling an unexpected longing for home.
There was an exchange of coin for keys before Lily returned downstairs to the bar, and Pan led the rest of the group into one of the rooms across from where Rubin was being treated. The ripples of magic still present in the air. After entering, the group dropped their packs and found space to finally relax. After everyone had gotten comfortable, Pan spoke.
“I know Edda and the Valiant Retreat from my time in the King’s Army, she’s one of the best healer’s to never take a Noble’s retainer.”
“I thought Telfor said you were from the North?” Zsófia asked. While subtle, she noticed that the question seemed to bring up bad memories in Pan.
“I was, but not many soldiers are needed to guard The Bulwark. Once I took King’s Coin I was sent on campaign in the east.”
“The East, where Rubin was from?”
“Uh, yes. I believe so.” Pan answered quickly, dismissively, “The point is, he’s in good hands. I’ve seen Edda bring men back from the brink when the ether was already sucked dry.”
Those words finally crystalised the feeling Zsófia had been unable to put her finger on since they had arrived in Verwich. The ether was much weaker here. In her home village magic was thick in the air, it filled every breath even when you weren’t trying to draw on it but here she suspected that even warming herself would be a tiring prospect. She’d never known magic could run out, the thought was horrifying.
“What happened to all the magic?”
The others’ faces seemed confused. Could they not feel the thinness of the ether? They must have been able to, for it was Pan who’d drawn her attention to it. But then why were they confused, she wondered.
“You said the magic had been sucked dry,” to Pan, “How is that possible?”
The three exchanged glances, clearly uncertain on how to answer. Zsófia filled the pause with fearful imaginings.
“I… well, it’s just what happens.” Pan answered, “There’s just less magic when there’s more People around.”
Relieved that there was no malicious cabal of sorcerers stealing the world’s magic, or curse from the God’s cutting off it’s flow, Zsófia wondered at the reason. Welcoming the distracting thought to keep her mind from lingering on Rubin’s fate and trying to analyse Edda’s treatment by the way her magic rippled.
No sooner had she thought that however, than she realised that Edda’s spellwork had finished. The ether was still once more. Zsófia shot to her feet.
“Edda’s finished her magic.”
Vahkragg intercepted her before she could reach the door, gently but firmly telling her to stay without wasting any words on the meaning. An anxious knot formed in the pit of her stomach as she returned to sit on the bed once more, the stress of not knowing gnawed at her.
Taking the moment to glance at the others she saw Vahkragg seemed as stoic as usual as he stood against the wall beside the door his thick arms folded across his chest. Seated by the window Pan and Telfor sat in tense silence that was much easier to read for its concern. Pan wore his concern openly, it was clear that he and Rubin weren’t close, but that his companions condition wasn’t welcome to the northerner. Beside him Telfor’s grey lined face was much more guarded, though far from the impassive visage Vahkragg managed. Her heart went out to him, despite the anger she felt towards him, it was clear how deeply he took his responsibility as the leader. She understood why the others trusted him.
A sharp rap at the door broke the silence. Vahkragg calmly opened it and permitted Edda’s entrance. At a second, closer look Zsófia realised Edda wasn’t as old as she’d first thought, closer to Telfor’s age than the Elders of her village.
“I’ve done all I can for your friend, for the moment. Atyx only knows why you can never come visit me without forcing me drag someone out of their early grave Pan, you old corpse.”
Her voice was harsh, and Zsófia was shocked by how crudely she spoke to Pan, but he chuckled warmly and crossed the room to embrace the older woman warmly. It occured to Zsófia, that as a Revenant, she wasn’t sure whether Pan still aged like normal. It was possible he could actually be much older than she thought.
“I’m sorry, Edda, you old crone. But if I didn’t bring you something to keep you busy, I’d never her the end of your judging.”
“Hmph. As rude as ever, I see. And don’t you worry, I’m more than spry enough to wring you out once I’m done with the lad. Speaking of which.”
The woman rounded on Zsófia, who froze. Edda was shorter even than Zsófia who’d assumed all outsiders were giants before they’d seen Lily, now before the diminutive but broadly built Edda up close Zsófia somehow still felt much smaller.
“I assume you’re the one who did that hack job trying to cure him?”
Blushing deeply, Zsófia nodded. Her stomach plummeting at the critical description of her work, afraid that she may have worsened Rubin’s condition.
“Stop that.” Edda scolded. “I’ve no time for self-pity, you gave him the strength to make it here but now I need you to walk me through what you’ve done so I can undo it and fix him properly.”