The chill of morning bore the deeper cutting edge of winter come early on the soft wind. Zsófia walked a step or two behind Rubin and Pan, yawning as often as breathing. She’d fallen out of the habit of early mornings while staying at The Valiant Retreat and on top of that Pan set a punishing pace.
Turning her focus inside Zsófia examined the sensation of where once The Horned God had infested her. The chilling silence that seemed to radiate from the wards Edda had bound the shard was numbing and unsettling. Checking on it brought her comfort despite the unwholesomeness of it.
Returning her focus to the world outside herself, Zsófia looked over at Pan and Rubin. Ever since the visit to the cathedral their already tense relationship had grown downright icy. It made her nervous. As much as she wanted to trust Pan, she saw him as a friend and thought he felt the same to her, his temper was frightening.
The group continued in silence as the sun rose and settled high into the sky bringing welcomed warmth and an even more welcomed sight ahead.
“Capital,” Rubin declared, “The Heart of the Empire. Seat of the Throne. Home of diplomacy and commerce.”
Zsófia’s eyes widened in awe as with every step closer the city on the horizon seemed to grow in size and imperiousness. After Verwich she thought she had known what a city could be, but for all it’s winding and sprawling streets and character it held not a candle to Capital in terms of majesty.
“It’s made of stone,” she said.
“That’s right, magically and alchemically reinforced stone at that.” Rubin lectured, “It is said that an enemy army employing standard seige weapons could not even tanish the stone if they spent a year and a day battering on it.”
Zsófia blinked at him. In her home the act of collecting enough wood to build a single house was a dangerous and slow task. The rituals to placate the forest, hunters to ward off any beast, monsters, or fae, all on top of the people needed to chop down and transport the wood. How much work must enough stone to build a city require?
Eventually they arrived at the gates. A great stone arch which can be sealed with steel and thick wood looms above casting a shadow over the crowds of people waiting outside. Almost as impressive to Zsófia as the city itself are the number of people making their ways in and out of the gates.
“A lot of soldiers at the gates,” Rubin stated quietly.
Pan’s gaze remained fixed on the crowd ahead.
“A lot of people coming through as well,” Rubin continued, “There’s no occasion to attract people, has something happened I wonder?”
The question hangs heavy. Looking around with Rubin’s hint Zsófia recognises the haggard and weary looks on a great number of the people who don’t seem to be trying to enter the city.
Zsófia’s felt torn with wanting to help them and not knowing how to. It seemed to her like they were being ignored, left to linger outside the walls waiting for something that may not be coming. Stepping away from the line and her companions, Zsófia approaches a girl around her own age who seemed to be listlessly waiting.
“Excuse me,” she asked, “Are you alright?”
The girl looked back suspiciously, glanced back over her shoulder before she nodded guardedly.
“I’m sorry, I just noticed there seemed to be a lot of people waiting here. You seem like something had happened.”
A look covered the girls face, a powerful sadness, “We’re from Pike’s Reach. We were attacked. The whole town. Destroyed by undead.”
The knowledge struck Zsófia like a blow. The undead force must have been the same that Telfor and his band had encountered on their way to her village. Did Telfor and Vahkragg not make it in time to warn, or was the warning not taken seriously enough?
She wanted to help the girl, but there was nothing she could do. Edda had warned her only to use her magic as sparingly as possible lest it weaken the wards on her. Beyond that she had no money, nothing else she could give her.
“I am so sorry,” she whispers.
The girl nods acknowledgement of the platitude blinking back tears. Rather than linger unhelpfully Zsófia returned to join Pan and Rubin in line.
Before long the group are searched and permitted entrance to the city. Once inside Pan turned and addressed them.
“I’m going to find Telfor and deliver the High Priestesses letter. Zsófia I’d recommend you stay with Rubin, Capital is not always safe for the unitiated.”
“Don’t worry, I’ll take care of her.”
“Make lodging arrangements for Zsófia. You know the muster date and schedule for The Reborn, make sure you’re there.”
“Of course, sir. I wouldn’t miss it for the world.” Rubin answers, his voice thick with annoyed sarcasm.
Without reaction to the scholar’s tone, Pan departs with just a moment spared for a friendly smile and nod in Zsófia’s direction.
The moment he was out of sight, Rubin let out a long tired sigh.
“At last!” he said with a smile to Zsófia, “I am very sorry you had to be subject to one of his moods. Try not to think too poorly of us as your hosts, Pan has a lot on his shoulders right now and I do unfortunately have to take credit for much of that. Hopefully his mood will be improved by the time we re-unite with him. Until then, let us find some lodgings for you. Would you rather join me in church lodgings, or perhaps you’ve spent enough time with the clergy and would prefer an inn?”
An involuntary grimace crosses Zsófia’s face before she could answer, the recollection of Edda and her ambush still fresh. As much as she came to appreciate the old woman, Zsófia still felt the betrayal.
“An Inn it is,’ Rubin interjected, “I’ll take you to the Pikeman’s Rest. It’s where most of The Reborn with no-where else end up. Don’t worry we’ll find you an actual room too, not just flop lodgement, I think we owe you that much at least!”
And with that Rubin led her through the paved streets of Capital, prattling on with the historical relevance of whatever caught his interest. Zsófia however only half listened, her mind was on the girl outside the gate and thinking back on her own journey wondering if there was anything she could have done differently that may have gotten Telfor and his warning to Capital in time to save that girl’s home.
In my defense, it was a much shorter wait between story entries than last time. Only three months this time. Maybe next time it’ll only be one month, or even less! Imagine the possibilities!