Chapter 22

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There was a short silence as Wenyanga watched the young woman. Anele. What a fascinating name. Thula's reaction to it was certainly a conversation for later. In all the years they had been a union, their beloved talked least about their time growing up along the coast of the South, and now with the way Anele pushed herself deeper into the corner, her expression darkening into something that looked bitterly close to malice, Wenyanga was starting to wonder if discomfort expressed as anger was a Coastal trait.

"Time's running and we aren't," they said.

Anele's scowl deepened. Her skirt was simple overlayer of black feathers, with seams cut in the middle of the thigh for easier movement. Each feather was so large it ran from the leather band at her hip to just above her knees, both of which were thick with old cuts. Her calves were a criss-cross of scars too, like she'd spent her life running through a field of briars. 

"I'm not trying to dig into you here, child, but if my plan's to work, I need to know why every time I push my gaze through you, I feel a hand closing around my neck. 

"First thing's first," she said. "Who's Tello?"

Thula spun to face Wenyanga. "How does she know about Tello?"

A cold droplet ran down the middle of Wenyanga's gut. They tried to clench a fist, but shattered knuckles blew a fire up the back of their hand, so they only dug up that old smile again.

"Beloved -- and Salleh -- could Anele and I have the room?"

Thula stared at them for a long time. She had no gaze, but the emotions played out clearly enough in her eyes. Confusion, then suspicion, a mite of anger that she would feel the need to regret later, and that Wenyanga would feel guilt for having inspiring it. And then, resignation. 

"I assume it isn't safe downstairs," Thula said.

"But the next room over has a balcony without an unconcious warmage," Salleh said. She slipped the ball of soul clay with the Judge's spirit inside her sleeve and started gliding towards the door. "Come."

Thula followed, clearly still weak from her bout with the Judge's flare, and cast Wenyanga a final glance over her shoulder as she gently closed the door behind her. They wouldn't be the only one with questions for later.

Grimacing, Wenyanga faced the ragged young witch, who looked like she was ready to fight with her back to the corner.

"So, what's trapped in those bones of yours?"

"Who's Tello?"

"The Pettygod."

"Obviously. Your mate?"

"He was."

"What happened?"

Something drew Wenyanga's gaze down. "I killed him."

Anele rolled her shoulder. "Feels mighty alive to me."

"You know a little about Pettygods, don't you?"

It was Anele's turn to look uncomfortable. "Little bit."

"What makes a Pettygod?"

"A Pinnacle who decides to become a Pettygod instead of a Judge."

"Ah yes, the Crossroad of the Pinnacle: the insight and ascension of a Judge, or the unfathomable power of a Pettygod. You know why most choose the path of the Judge?"

"Pettygod's an unstable form. Those too weak for it die when their new bodies suck all the power from their soul. Those strong enough are still driven mad."

"Tello was strong enough. Was. His soul is only moving that body, but its driven by hunger. My beloved is dead. So there. That's who Tello is."

"That's... that's raw."

"It is."

"Now you. When I open my stoneiris, I can't shake the feeling that I'm looking at two... people isn't the right word. I'm looking at two concepts of power, like a dual soul. Who's in your bones?"

Did the young woman's eyes just darken? "A friend."

"Ah. I won't pry."

Her nostrils flared, but she nodded. 

"So, do you think your friend could make room for one more?"

**

Salleh scowled at the ring of fire floating over the city. From the vantage of the second balustrade, she could watch it slowly spinning over the town square a few streets away, bubbling at the edges as its exposure to unfiltered aura turned it ever more unstable. The Pettygod's attack had sped up the townsfolks' evacuation, but it was still a messy affair. They clashed into each other in the streets. They raided houses and buildings that were not theirs, running away with children in one arm and baskets of grain or bundles of blankets in the other. There was no clear direction. They spilt out of the town like ants out of a collapsing hill.

They wouldn't be able to run far enough. It was on them to control the volatile soul before it exploded, but right now Salleh's chief concern was the conversation in the adjacent room.

So, the Pettygod had been in union with Wenyanga. Cote -- laughing, gentle, powerful Cote -- had been slain by the Crude's own beloved. Salleh's fingers cracked the stone balustrade. 

The neighbouring balcony's one was completely crushed, leaving only a glimpse of the unconscious warmage between the rubble. Salleh's eyes went back to Sanele's soul, but her focus was in the room over.

"...that's raw."

Thula shuffled next to her. "Seer, I never thanked you for shielding me from the Judge's flare."

That pulled Salleh's awareness back to the room. She cycled Air aura to distract from her annoyance. Still, she found a gentle word. "It is my duty, Doctor. You have given much for mages, it is for us to return the sacrifice."

"Ah. Well, thank you again. If you don't mind, however, I have a question."

Salleh inhaled deeply.

"Why did the child mention Tello?"

"Ask your beloved."

"I would, but..."

"You are afraid they will lie to you?"

"No. Wenyanga will keep their silence before they lie. That silence is no better, however."

Giving up on trying to refocus next door, Salleh turned away from the balcony. "Ask your beloved, Doctor."

"I see. In any case--"

Salleh's soul reacted to the Poison aura a heartbeat before the balcony flashed green and gold. She spun to face the adjacent balcony, and before her eyes even fell on the rubble, she knew that the other Perfect was no longer there. A pressure fluttered from below. Salleh sprinted towards the balustrade, lifting Thula by the waist as she went. Her robe expanded like a sail bellied in the wind before it wrapped the doctor up. Poison aura bubbled along the edges of the fabric, but it did not penetrate.

She kicked off the balustrade at a full sprint, hurling both of them through the air as a wave of deadly Poison and Dream aura erupted from below and blew apart the balcony.



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