Chapter 17

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Salleh drew all the Air aura on the balcony into herself and cycled furiously. The suppressive weight on her soul pushed her into a bow over Sanele, who was still pinned under her heel. He was faring much worse than her, though that was partly down to the ribbons she still had wrapped around his throat. She was not too pressed with her counter-flexing to loosen her stranglehold. Cote's soul was still bleeding out of his fingers, his essence running along the tiles like cream, and in all the known world it was easier to find a white opal than a forgiving seer.

Wenyanga stepped onto the balcony, throwing the silk curtain aside, broken arm tucked into the V of their robes. They smiled in that infuriating way that was almost apologetic, as if the weight of their soul wasn't pinning three Perfect mages to the spot. 

"Well, this is awkward."

That stoked Salleh's anger a little more. She cast her awareness wider, and drew half the Air aura in the town. It was a dangerous amount to absorb all at once, and her soul -- a ring of clear liquid in her core -- bubbled along the edges as she cycled. It would have been easier if she knew what aura Wenyanga was drawing on to power their flexing, but Salleh was a seer. They had insight enough to fix most problems, especially ones caused by a Crude...

...who keeps getting the upper hand on three Perfects.

Salleh pushed her awareness through Wenyanga's soul for just about the tenth time that day. Again, they gave no indication that they felt her prodding, but Salleh didn't walk away with any new information. Their soul was incredibly balanced and still, but it still had the unrefined shape and power of a basic mage. The sun would not fall without them answering for that, but for now, there was punishment to be handed out.

When Salleh's soul refined the last of the Air aura, it smoothed out again, turning like a wheel of liquid diamond around an invisible axis. One of the things that had affronted her most about Sanele was that his soul was on the outside. It had a Perfect shape, but he either hadn't had the resources or the insight to compress it to its most efficient form. And he was the second most powerful mage in this town.

Salleh flexed her soul, and Wenyanga's influence shattered around her. She really couldn't wait to get back to Deserteye. 

Wenyanga's smile didn't fade, but it grew a little edge. Oh, that slight hint of annoyance was worth all the afternoon's troubles. 

"That's... impressive."

Salleh's robes rippled. "Hardly."

Sanele and the other warmage were still under the influence of Wenyanga's flexing. A narrow vortex spun slowly around Salleh, refined Air aura turning aside the surgeon's influence. Despite the cool look she fixed on them, it still required some level of effort to maintain. She wrapped a third ribbon around Sanele's waist. But not too much effort.

"I think it's time to end the fun," Wenyanga said. "I just came out here to see if you needed any help."

Salleh dained to cast her gaze over the second warmage, rooted to the spot only two paces away from her, his wide eyes growing bloodshot. "I assume he broke your arm."

Wenyanga frowned. "I fell."

"Then fall on him and see if he breaks, otherwise no. I don't need your help."

"Enough!

The second warmage surprised them both with an explosion of Dream aura. It exploded across the balcony, a wave of golden light that rippled against the barrier of Salleh's Air vortex. A sliver of yellow mist slipped through the shield. It burned away before it got anywhere near her soul, but it still awakened something in her mind. An old memory. A deep laugh and the smell of bread on a cold morning.

Salleh frowned, half distracted as the warmage cycled furiously, his soul flexing hard against Wenyanga's influence. That was more power than Sanele could ever produce, and if nothing else, if he called himself Perfect, Salleh wouldn't be overwhelmed with the urge to cut him down for his arrogance. With the depth of pressure his soul was putting out, he might have ranked within the top one thousand Perfects in Deserteye. Well, top five thousand.

Free of Wenyanga's flexing, he seemed to stand half a foot taller, his muscles thicker, the murderous intent in his eyes deeper. 

"The games end now." 

He exploded the last two paces towards Salleh, but she had long since moved out of the way. It wasn't until she landed on the balustrade that she realised her error. Her slipper kissed the cracked stone, light as sin falling on a soul, before a wet crack snapped through the balcony air. The warmage hadn't been aiming for her.

He was panting heavily, his huge shoulders heaving up to his ears, but Salleh's eyes went to the thick trunk of his forearm, which was halfway buried in the base of Sanele's spine. Even then, his fist shone green and gold inside the chief's belly. Sanele's final sound was a hushed whimper before his soul was ripped out his back.

The chief slumped into the white puddle of Cote's soul.

"Here's the deal," the warmage said, rising to his feet. "You two can team up and kill me, you can scoop up the Judge's soul and walk away, or..." He flung the Chief's soul. It arced through the air like a second sun before it came to an abrupt halt over the square, right in the heart of the town, where the crowds were still thick. "You can save the town." 

"It's a false choice," Wenyanga said, rubbing their shoulder. "We have at least ten minutes before a Perfect warmage Soul grows unstable."

The warmage smiled. "I'd only have to last until then."

Salleh stepped down from the balustrade, silk ribbons fluttering in the still air. "Bold of you to assume you will."

They were easy words, but not entirely true to their bravado. Salleh didn't have the raw power to put down a warmage, but she had worn Sanele down while Cote's soul had drawn most of his power when he'd absorbed it. It was a fight where she only had to walk while he sprinted himself into a corner. They were working against the clock here, and unless Wenyanga had a little more kick in their flexing, it wasn't as straightforward as words.

"Make this simple for yourself," he said. "Just give me the Judge's soul."

Salleh was almost tempted to. It would only wear him down quicker. She looked at Sanele's skeletal hand, limp against the shattered tiles. A Judge's soul wasn't some powerful elixir you could drink or cycle, if you didn't have the right reserves and insight -- both of which took decades to earn -- it would eat even a Perfect in a matter of minutes. But seeing Cote's soul pooling under the corpse of a thief was the last straw. Salleh was ready to burn anyone who kept her in this damn town any longer than she had to be. There was grieving to be done, not to mention a painful meeting with the Paramount.

The curtain fluttered again. Both Salleh and the warmage turned to face the disruption, but Wenyanga was already looking at the door, smiling, as a young woman limped onto the balcony.  Her thick matted locks swayed over her shoulders, and there were white scratched all over the dark red-brown skin of her arms and legs and feet. She wore a skirt of dark feathers, three small clay pots dangling from the hip, and a shawl of tattered, sun-faded rags on her stocky frame, but what caught Salleh's focus was her eyes. Her gaze felt like it had been dug out of the deepest earth. 

Salleh passed her awareness through the young woman's soul and shuddered. Crude. Distressingly weak, but it was worse than that. Her soul was as thin and ragged as her shawl, dark remnants of it floating under her liver like swirling ashes. It was the soul of a corpse. Unlike Wenyanga, when Salleh scanned her, those dark eyes met hers directly. Not a hint of arrogance there, but no retreat either.

"Let me guess," Salleh said, a bitter taste in her mouth. "You're here for the Judge's soul."

"If that's alright with you," she said, voice soft with disuse.  "And even if it isn't."

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