Chapter 43

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Wenyanga cupped Thula's face with their good hand, scanning her face. "Are you hurt?"

It was a stupid question to ask. She was and she wasn't. She had no scratches or bruises, and her body rung whole in Wenyanga's spiritual sense. But Thula still didn't have a soul to strengthen her body with orgone, and her eyes were still wide, too wide, glossy in the pale golden light of the room's runes. Shaken but unharmed. And yet Wenyanga asked the question again, because knowing was one thing, but they had to hear it.

"Fine." Thula swallowed a shaky breath. "I'm fine, they just... startled me."

"They?"

"The Wind mage and... the one before."

The one before. The image of two figures crashing through the wall played again in Wenyanga's mind. Wenyanga's throat tightened and their eyes suddenly grew too heavy to meet Thula's gaze.

"The Earthwitch..."

"Fought off the first one," Thula said. "He'd come for... the Pettygod."

A wince, an exhale. "They're all coming for him." But the Windmage sensed Cote's soul and went after the bigger prize. 

A trembling hand settled on Wenyanga's wrist, bringing them back to their body. They stared a moment at Thula's fingers, soft and warm, not wrapping around their wrist but cupping it gently as if to steady both of them.

"You're bleeding," Thula said, touching a wet spot on Wenyanga's sleeve.

"My blood's just going on an excursion is all." They tried on a smile, but it fell when Thula's failed to rise. "I should probably..."

"Yeah."

They took a step back from each other, and it was all Wenyanga could do not to wince as they turned away from their beloved. They caught Thula rubbing her hands out the corner of their eye, and the flat line that stretched her lips, but said nothing. A word now might tear open that red wound that sat bright and hot between them. There were easier things to focus on, like stolen souls.

Wenyanga frowned and turned to the hole in the wall. Salleh stood there, robes fluttering slightly as the rain lashed down just beyond. She gripped a loose brick in the wall so hard the sinew along the back of her hand stood out like chords of iron.

"Surprised you haven't gone racing after them," Wenyanga said, joining her at the broken wall.

Salleh was staring beyond the town. "Open your stoneiris. Fully."

Wenyanga was about to argue that the Paramount's rain was designed specifically to distort most aura that wasn't Wind or Water, but the Seer's tone brooked no argument. Gritting their teeth against the glare of aura, Wenyanga cracked open their stoneiris, then peeled it all the way open.

The glare from the rain was more blinding than the sun, but it only lasted a heartbeat. It was made to stun mages caught in the storm, but Wenyanga had been expecting it and hadn't opened their iris all the way at once. When the flair died down, it was as expected, distorted aura all around. 

The pockets of rogue Flame aura were dead or dying, the Earth, once a hazy mass sitting just under the topsoil, had solidified to the grey semi-solid aura that signalled mud. But Salleh's eyes had been on the horizon, not the street, so Wenyanga lifted their own gaze.

They picked out Anele and the Windmage instantly, on a rooftop two streets down. They sparked in Wenyanga's stoneiris as two blots of light in the haze, one a deep violet ball, the other a swirling mass of grey like ashes stirring in the wind. Aura flared as they fought, but Wenyanga's eyes went beyond them.

Another spark appeared a mile from the town. And another. Three more. Five. Ten. Souls came alive in the gloomy desert like stars in a new evening sky. Wenyanga stopped guessing how many when they crossed a hundred. Only the town lacked the silvery flare of many souls stood close together. They were the black pupil in the eye of a spiritual storm. The expanse of blank desert between them and the closest souls shrunk. 

Mages. Hundreds of them all around, closing in on the town at a dead sprint.

Wenyanga's jaw flexed. "Help the Earthwitch. Meet up back here."

"We can't fight them off," Salleh said, turning at last. "It's a swarming party, mostly Refineds with at least a dozen Perfects between them. They'll eat through this place like carrion flies."

"Well, we're not going to run past them, and even if we go into hiding, it's not us they want, is it?"

The Judge, the Judge's soul... and Tello. 

Wenyanga turned to see Thula staring at the iron body that had once belonged to their beloved. The body still had a soul and a stoneiris, ones that held Tello's memories, but a very cold part of Wenyanga wanted to say it was no longer him. That was the husk of the man that had once been. That was the husk Wenyanga had made.

"Either way, we're most vulnerable here," Salleh was saying.

"We can't move the Pettygod, so here is where we stay."

"You're defending a corpse!"

Wenyanga wheeled on Salleh. "You do not get to say that."

"Then I'll say it." Thula's voice wasn't tender, but it was the softest Wenyanga had heard in a while.

They turned back to face her. "Beloved, we can't--"

"Tello's dead, let them have his body," she said. Her eyes were focused again, angry and tear-polished. "I'm tired, Wenyanga, and most of all at looking at him. Tello's dead and I want to leave. I don't even know why you insisted on dragging him up here. I know he doesn't have lungs anymore but it's not just that he doesn't breath, his soul is quiet and there's no memory that hangs about him."

A tightness coiled around Wenyanga's spine. Quietly, they said, "Beloved, we can't move him because he is only half dead."

Thula's eyes rose to pierce through Wenyanga's, and for a moment they felt the heat of the power that had once lived in that gaze. It was a passing heat, and gave way to despair far too quickly.

"What are you saying?"

"I'm saying there... may be a way to bring him back."

"Voidgods."

"Beloved--"

"I don't want to hear it, Nyanga. Just..." Thula hugged herself and turned away. "Just do what you always do."

There was that red wound again, smiling as if it would show teeth at any moment. 

"Yes, beloved," Wenyanga said hoarsely.

They turned back to Salleh, but the Seer had already disappeared into the rain. There was a brief flutter of silk across the nearest rooftop, then it disappeared into the haze.

Wenyanga sighed, back still to Thula. "You don't need to say anything, but if you have any pill in your kit that heals bones in a heartbeat, I'd beg it of you now. I'm going to need both hands to keep us safe."

And ten lifetimes to survive whatever comes after that.

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