Chapter 39

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Wenyanga stood at the foot of the grave, rubbing their slung elbow with their good hand. The hole hadn't been big. Wenyanga had dug with one hand and Salleh with half a heart, and the Judge had been a large man, his shoulders pressed against the sandy walls. It was a shame to bury such a powerful mage in a place like this, but his soul was no longer in his body so there was no need to prolong the inevitable. They were just hiding meat in the ground, a final courtesy to keep him from the carrion birds.

Still, Wenyanga said a short prayer for him, no more than four words. Then they looked up at Salleh and nodded.

The Seer stood halfway up the closest dune, hands cupped before her naval, stoneiris glowing bright even in the noon sunshine. A wall of sand curved behind her, as though held up by an invisible screen. With their stoneiris cracked open, Wenyanga saw the flitter of Kinetic aura that ran across the wall, carefully woven to hold it in place. 

It'd been troublesome enough to keep out of the way, but with the sun hitting the noon point, the dawn of mourning was technically called to a close, small comfort that gave mourners. When Salleh relaxed with an exhale, the wall collapsed and spilt down the dune, covering the grave in red sand. Wenyanga flexed their soul gingerly, gaze focused on the grave. The sand there hardened to cracking clay, like a riverbed run dry. Not quite good soil, but hard enough that it wouldn't blow away. 

The Earthwitch likely could have transmuted it to vibrant loam with just a stomp of her foot.

Wenyanga looked up again. Salleh still hadn't moved from her foothold on the dune. Her eyes were half drooped, and she swayed slightly in the breeze, but Wenyanga didn't move closer. Her exhaustion had nothing to do with holding up a wall of sand several times heavier than her -- she'd fought a Pettygod only a day ago. Well... helped stop a Pettygod from killing Anele, who'd done most of the damage.

In another world, they might have all made a good team together. In a world where the courtesy of mourning loved ones wasn't masking some ugly truths they'd all have to have words with. Without moving, Salleh slid down the dune on a wave of sand, lurching as she hit the base of it. Her eyes were on the hard patch of dirt that'd have to pass for her husband's grave, and her gaze was so heavy Wenyanga wondered if she was staring simply because she didn't have the strength to lift it.

Well, it was likely the worst time to have this conversation, but there wasn't enough time to make it easier.

"In exchange for her help," Wenyanga said, "I promised the Earthwitch the Judge's soul."

"I know." Salleh's voice still hadn't climbed above that raspy whisper. "I heard you from the other room."

Wenyanga had suspected as much. "She helped."

"She bargained with you. Not me."

"I know. I'm trying to bargain with you."

Oh. Turned out Salleh could lift her gaze, and when she did there was so much crackling heat in it Wenyanga flinched with the effort of not taking a step backwards. That wasn't just anger, it was rage on the edge of murderous intent.

"You would insult me less," she said in that dark whisper, "if you stabbed me and took the soul, rather than barter for it over my husband's grave."

Wenyanga let the full rebuke hit them, partly because it was deserved, partly because Salleh needed to bleed it out of herself if she was going to take their next words seriously. Something briefly caught their attention, a thin cloud floating high in the blue sky. Why did that fascinate them? The Flame aura likely disrupted all the other elemental aura too. The odd cloud would form. 

When they tried to meet Salleh's gaze again, the Seer stared down at the grave, and that brief spark of light inside her tampered down to a smoulder.

"A Judge and a Perfect died and three mages fought a Pettygod, all in the space of a few hours," Wenyanga said carefully. "How long before the magical aftershocks of all that register in Deserteye?"

Salleh's sigh drained more of the little life she had in her eyes. "With their Seers? A matter of hours."

"And how soon would they deploy a scouting party?"

"For that level of aura disruption, they'd deploy a small war party."

"Right." Wenyanga knew the protocol, but it was good that Salleh was actually paying attention. "How long would it take them to deploy a war party?"

"A day, maybe less, maybe more. A Judge in the service of Deserteye would need sanction from the Paramount herself to leave the city, which they could get instantly, but... duties. Got to shift them off to another mage of equal ability. Lots of... moving parts."

Salleh said all of this without inflexion, save for the falters near the end. When she looked up slowly, Wenyanga followed her gaze. The cloud had doubled in size. With the amount of disruption in the area, that wasn't surprising, despite the scorching lack of humidity. What made Wenyanga frown, however, was that the cloud had become denser, but rather than darkening like a slate grey rain cloud, it had turned a pale gold.

"No," Salleh whispered. "No, even if they deployed the party yesterday, they wouldn't be here for another--"

The cloud tripled in size in the next heartbeat, and the pale gold deepened to a burnished copper crackling with hidden lightning. The first patter of raindrops put dark steaming spots on the red sand.

"No, no, no," Salleh said. She actually took a step back.

Wenyanga couldn't blame her, because they swallowed and found the effort of breathing suddenly doubled. With every breath she did take, the rain strengthened until it fell in a mild shower that hissed against the sand.

Salleh was right on one point. There was no way a war party would get here before tomorrow evening, but this wasn't a war party. There was only one mage in this part of the world powerful enough to conjure a raincloud in the middle of the desert. A copper raincloud.

"Come!"

Wenyanga grabbed Salleh's wrist, afraid the Seer wouldn't follow if they simply sprinted back towards the town. They stumbled that way together through sand that was becoming muddier with every step, Salleh silent in her shock, Wenyanga swearing between their teeth as sleet ran down their face in rivers. 

It was the longest sprint of their life, and all the while the rain that signalled the Paramount's arrival turned the desert to a quagmire.

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