Chapter 41

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Dragging Salleh through the abandoned town was like pulling a kite through a storm. She felt almost weightless as Wenyanga tightened their grip on her hand and yanked her through an alley, and every time they looked back, they found her eyes downcast and unfocused as rivers of rain ran down her face.

Water sloshed as they ran barefooted, loose stones slipping in the deceptive depths of the puddles. Voidgods, it had only been raining for a minute at the most, but the hard-packed dirt streets were melting underfoot.

A thin wire fence partitioned the alley from the street beyond. Wenyanga put their good shoulder into the metal pole in the middle of it and crashed through. The hem of their robes snagged on the torn mesh and sent them stumbling broken-arm-first towards the street. With their grip still on Salleh's wrist, they both went tumbling, but Wenyanga's fall halted a handspan from the rain-riddled earth with a tight snap across their chest.

It took a moment to realise what had happened, then Salleh pulled them upright by the scruff of their collar, eyes still unfocused as the rain glued her silk hood to her head. Those were better reactions and balance than Wenyanga generally managed while fully fit.

If I ever have the displeasure of being reincarnated, Wenyanga thought, I'm coming back with a body from her Path.

They didn't have to hold Salleh's wrist as they sprinted the final block to the doctor's temple. Wenyanga -- broken arm and all -- set a vicious pace that strained their bruised soul and muscles alike, but Salleh was never far behind, little more than a flash of red silk and a pinhead of silver light in the lashing rain.

Anele had been the battering ram that had eventually put a weakening Pettygod down while Wenyanga suppressed his soul, but it had been Salleh's control of aura and reaction time that had kept them in the mix of things. A day ago, Wenyanga would have eaten their broken arm before making an admission like that even to themselves, but between them, Thula, and even Anele, Salleh had been the one to consistently go above and beyond, all on the day her husband had died in front of her.

They still owed the Earthwitch a soul, though... Problems for later.

Wenyanga came to a rough stop as they turned onto the temple's street. Water sloshed as they skidded, and for a moment they braced themselves for Salleh to crash into them, but there was the soft trickle of slippers on water and then the Seer was beside them, staring at the same thing they were.

Six mages, all standing around the main entrance that led to the temple where Thula was currently looking after Anele and Tello. Six mages, at least four Refined, and two on the very edge of Perfect. They cut dark figures in the rain, their yellow robes dulled to a dirty gold. The Paramount's copper cloud hung high over them all, but Wenyanga didn't sense the overwhelming weight and pressure of a Paramount's soul nearby.

Scavengers then, no doubt sniffing about for the source of power that had exploded through the town a day before. But they were just... standing there. Nothing separated them from the temple except an iron fence and the entry garden beyond.

They wouldn't be here to sort through the aftermath of the Pettygod battle with words or law, and Wenyanga didn't need to look at their iron swords and spears to know that. In many ways, they'd have prefered if the Paramount had just come down, pressed them all to their feet, and asked just what in the voids was going on.

"Don't suppose you're in a condition to fight," Wenyanga whispered.

Salleh's red robes hung like a condemnation on her shoulders, her cowl plastered to her cheek, obscuring her face. "I'm a divine artist, I'm always in condition to fight," she said flatly. "Just not in a position to win this one. You?"

"I mean... I could take five of them by myself but if you're not up to the sixth, I guess we'll have to put brains before fists for a change." Wenyanga's lip twitched when they looked down at their soaked sling. "Well, fist. Singular."

Salleh said nothing.

"Oi!" Wenyanga kicked one of the stones in the street, sending it flying towards the grey and gold figures. 

One of them twitched, and Wenyanga caught the blur of iron a moment before the sword split the pebble. All six figures turned slowly, and the one who had their sword out pointed it at Wenyanga. They were thirty paces away, but the threat tingled between their eyes. Thirty paces away, obscured by warm, heavy rain. Wenyanga smiled anyway, because why not?

"Suppose you've all seen that pretty cloud in the sky," they said. "Suppose you all know who it came from."

The five other figures drew their weapons, and five more spots tingled all along Wenyanga's body.

"If you tuck tail now," they said, "we won't mention you when our friend the Paramount shows up." Dropping their voice to a whisper, they said to Salleh, "The Paramount is your friend, right?"

"Cote's."

Shit.

"A Refined and a Perfect," the figure who'd split the pebble said, their deep voice burrowing through the howling rain. "No Paramount is here for you, and given that none of us are writhing in pain, I'd wager there's no Paramount at all."

See now there was something that bothered Wenyanga. That cloud was unmistakable, and the only mages powerful enough to create it in a desert would be from the direct royal line, and that particular copper colour was the signature of only one member of the Cloudriver Clan.

"That's a high stakes wager for someone with only an iron coin," Wenyanga said, smile never dimming. They'd learned long ago that even if you couldn't see a grin, you could hear it. "You six mages want to risk your lives over it?"

"Seven mages," the swordsman said. "And the only lives at risk right now are you--"

A wall shattered on the second story of the medic temple. Bricks blew apart as two figures flew through the hole and crashed down somewhere in the garden beyond. There was the sound like flesh hitting the ground, then a moment later like a boulder crashing down on the earth. A brief scream, then the unmistakeable squelch of a fist crashing through a stoneiris. Then there was just the rain beating down on the roofs all around.

The swordsman turned back towards the temple. "The void was that?"

A hand gripped one of the iron bars that fenced the garden from the street and ripped it off like a twig from a dead tree. Then it ripped another, and another. Anele stepped through the gap, face obscured by blood, rain, and the shadow of her braids falling heavy around her. She had a sword in her other hand, the edged blade held tight in her fist like a club.

She tossed it at the six figures in the street, and it skidded to a halt under the swordman's heel.

"That's Censile's sword!" one of the other grey figures shouted. 

"Well," Wenyanga said, recovering first from the general shock. "We may not have a Paramount, but we have an Earthwitch. So if you would all kindly get--"

The one who'd cried out charged first at Anele. She disappeared back into the garden as the mage rushed through the gap in the fence after her. Three breaths passed. This time, when Anele tossed something over the rosebushes and onto the street, it was a corpse. Two heartbeats passed, then all five remaining mages charged through the broken fence.

"Shit!" Wenyanga sprinted towards the fence. 

Salleh was already flying through the gap, a blur of red silk trailed by a haunting battle cry. By the time Wenyanga crashed through the bushes, they were stumbling arse first into the mother of all dogfights, and there was nothing fake about the grin they wore. 

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