Wenyanga's fingers splayed over Tello's belly, the burnt pads of their fingertips rasping against the cool iron ridges of his scar. Those ridges ran from a floating rib to the opposite hip, curving just under his liver, the cut thickest where the soul had once been. Still was. Breathing became a battle of wills between their lungs and the air in the ruined room. At some point, Wenyanga swallowed the fist in their throat and remembered that souls needed a breathing pattern the way a heart needed a rhythm.
"Let's see how dead you are, beloved."
All ten of Wenyanga's rings glowed like bands of warm amber, but their hands trembled and the glow of the runes couldn't quite wash away the blue tint under their nails. Nothing to be done for that. The Restoration Pill knitted broken bones quicker than a clothworker could seam a square of linen, but it took energy from somewhere.
Tello's voice rung like a hollow whisper in Wenyanga's skull. Deathsages believe they receive the energy they push out, but it's quite the opposite for everyone else. We take in energy and we become, and then we breathe out. All that we are to the world dies with every exhale, and yet we give until there is nothing to keep our chest from collapsing in on itself.
Wenyanga's response had carried a hint of bitterness so subtle it barely registered now. All they could hear was the pang of fear as they sat in the sand, watching Tello's naked back as he threw stones into the ocean.
You make the Deathsages sound like optimists.
They are. Anyone who spends their days drinking liquified Death aura gains a stubborn sort of optimism. They're still wrong, though.
Tello threw a pebble so far into the ocean it disappeared behind a wave taller than he was. Death is a phase, not an end.
Tello, the point of the divine arts is to prolong life, but you can't cheat death.
Of course you can. He turned, and the ocean made a pale cloak against his dark shoulders. Voidhells, if you've got an hour I could probably show you.
Wenyanga leaned over the iron corpse, head dipping below their shoulders. "Theory's fun, beloved, but the point of a contingency plan is that you make one, and then bend over backwards to avoid using it."
"Will it work?"
The bitterness in Thula's voice wasn't as subtle as Wenyanga's had been all those years ago. Why would it be? Her fear was fresher, compounded with lies and sprinkled with a dash of arcane arts that went against every law of her practice.
It either won't work or it'll work too well, Wenyanga thought. "I don't know."
"Well Voids, Nyanga, and you sounded so sure when you threatened to bring our beloved -- our dead beloved -- back to life. Let me guess... the technique is a secret he only ever discussed with you."
Wenyanga's inhale wasn't even deep enough to stir their soul. "Yes."
A long silence followed. Well, it only lasted a few heartbeats, but when the rain of a powerful mage family whipped the walls and spilt halfway into the room, and the press of dozens of souls grew hotter by the second then a heartbeat stretched itself to an hour's worth of pain.
"He, um... only ever explained the theory behind it. And demonstrated on a dead sparrow once. That week where he was struck with soul fever?"
"I remember it."
We, on the other hand, think Life gives and Death takes, Tello had said, but that's where the Deathsages know the truth. Life takes, it takes breath and water and flesh and orgone. Death only gives, but what it gives...
"What did you say?" Thula asked.
"Life cannot keep."
"What does that mean?"
"It's a mantra from the Path of the Deathsage."
"Nyanga... I'm tired."
"No, Nyanga, I'm tired of being angry and terrified. Please just... do it."
Another shallow breath. "Alright."
Slowly, so as not to bruise their soul all over again, Wenyanga peeled back layer after layer of their soul. One, five, ten. By fifty, warm sweat ran down the sides of their nose. At seventy, their body trembled from the bones out. Eyes shut, teeth gritted, lips salty with sweat, Wenyanga pushed their awareness to the very edges of the town.
Oh, what they sensed brewing in the streets.
Somewhere on a nearby roof, Air and Water aura gathered so thickly it could only be a Perfect's soul. It whipped like a miniature storm, scattering other auras while siphoning the natural power from the rain. On the street below, Poison, Flame, Destruction and Sword aura all flaring and bubbling around a solid mass of pure Earth aura. The Flame died, and the Sword followed. More aura flooded the street, darkened with murderous intent. The Earth flittered and then hardened again, gleaming with whisps of Kinetic.
Beyond that, a ball of Kinetic aura shone so brightly on the outskirts of town that it washed out the dozens of stoneirises nearby like a full moon burning stars out the sky. And between all these auras, like essence knitting the world together, was Life.
Wenyanga cupped it all in their awareness and called it to themselves as the ocean calls waves to the horizon. The walls shook with the weight of aura passing through them, and then the dim room was awash in the blinding white light of Wenyanga's stoneiris. With a breath, they channelled Life through their body, then shoved it through the hands splayed over Tello's soul.
The loose bricks in the broken wall flew off, and the rain whipped away from the room. A burn bored through the middle of Wenyanga's brow. Whatever had happened to their stoneiris, their spiritual sense went from a whorl of watercolours to black and white tinted with blood on the edges.
When they tried to close their stoneiris, it only half-closed, like a door blown off the top hinge.
It didn't matter, because in that moment all of Wenyanga's senses were tuned to the new heartbeat in the room. It filled up all their awareness, ripped any emotion they could have and draped wonder over the bones. Wenyanga shivered with the relief of it, so much so that they barely felt Thula hook her arms under theirs and lift them off the floor.
Something wet their cheek. Tears, not their own. Thula? Thula. Why would she be crying? Tell would live. They'd done everything right what in the voids could there possibly be to ever feel sorrow about again?
Wenyanga pondered this in a daze as they were propped up against the inside wall. They pondered it while watching the iron body lay on the bed. Motionless. They pondered it until they realised that the heartbeat in the room was just the throb of their fissured stoneiris, and the sense of new life was just the aura bleeding off the walls like paint in the rain.