Chapter 51

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The Earthwitch burst into the room first. Wenyanga looked up at her from the corner they slumped in, braids falling about the knees they'd tucked under their chin. She'd walked away from her brawl in the streets, so that was something. How many Refineds had she taken on? Hmm. Wenyanga found it hard to care for even the strange tint of Lightning aura that wafted into the room with her, or how her shawl seemed to be burned into her shoulder.

"The Void happened to you?" she asked.

Wenyanga's eyes suddenly grew too heavy, and they let them fall to the wooden panel between their feet. Tello's iron scent still dominated the room, but with a ruined stoneiris, it was hard to pick it out between all the other aura around them. The iron stood out only because of their attachment to the soul that inspired it, and Lightning aura was a powerful scent wherever it was. But for the first time in so many years, Wenayanga could barely sense the world beyond their own flesh.

They were aware of their blood coursing through them, slightly thicker than Thula's, nowhere near as thick as the sap along a cut in the Earthwitch's brow. Wenyanga's heartbeat was a new sensation to their own ears. So often, their spiritual awareness was cast wide to soak in the world and pick apart the intricacies of aura it inspired, sifting through the souls of passing mages, weaving between the memories of their patients. Carving open souls like cadavers.

That ruined stoneiris left them with only the weight of their own soul. And it found them wanting.

Someone kicked their ankle out from under them, and Wenyanga lurched forward before catching themselves. The Earthwitch was staring down at them, blood rimming their left eye, one hand cupped gently around a rib that seemed to make breathing hard.

"I said what happened?"

Wenyanga drew their other knee up again.

"They won't answer you," Thula said from somewhere in the room, quiet-like. A whisper in a silent room as the rain roared against the clay roof. 

"You've got another ankle, friend. Start talking because I'm getting turned over a fire out there.

The Seer entered the room then, her robes a second skin hanging heavy off her shoulders. Salleh moved with none of her usual grace. Her steps were staggered, eyes wild and unfocused, and ever few breaths she would flinch as if whipped. Wenyanga could only half see her as she slumped against the wall, but they couldn't quite find the energy to look around Anele's calf to catch her expression just then.

"You smell like a Deathsage," Anele said.

"Mm. Cloudriver?"

"Cloudriver."

"One of the important ones?"

"I kicked him in the head and he just laughed, so I doubt it." Anele saw something that made her leg tense, since that was all Wenyanga could see. "You escaped a Deathsage with the Judge's soul."

There was a short silence as the rain whipped around the hole in the wall.

"She took Cote's stoneiris."

Anele's fist was the next to clench. Wenyanga only felt the strength leave their back.

"That's low."

Salleh tried to say something, or at least Wenyanga assumed. They only heard the shaky breaths of a person trying to swallow a guttural wail of grief. They knew that shuddering breath well. How many of those had seized them after Tello had... failed? How tightly had their throat closed around words and air and bile?

"It's one less thing to protect." 

Wenyanga heard the words come out of their mouth, but they didin't register as theirs until Anele braced with the effort of holding Salleh back. She had crossed the room in a heartbeat, and the Earthwitch would have been too slow if the Seer decided to step around her, but with Wenyanga melted into a corner of the room, the only way to reach her was through Anele, who had just enough strength to hold her back. Just.

"Fuck you." Salleh spat, and Wenyanga wiped a wet gob from the top of their cheek. "Child, if you don't let go of me, I'll kill you all."

"I just mean," Wenyanga said, tired, oh so tired, "that there is still the soul to protect."

"I couldn't care less what you mean, you self-absorbed ass."

"Easy, friend."

"No." Salleh shoved Anele aside, and it wasn't then until they all realised how much of her strength the Seer generally held back. Anele had to catch herself on the wall, and the handprint she left there had cracks along it. Salleh crouched low to fill up Wenyanga's vision, all shining eyes and white teeth bubbling with spittle. "You listen to me now, you low-bent, reckless mutt."

Wenyanga's face warmed with a distant anger still fighting through layers and layers of cold self-pity.

"Cote came here to clean up your mess and he died in the attempt," Salleh seethed. "Since then, I have had to put aside burying my beloved for the sake of your actions, which draw blood from every single person who has found it in their right mind to help you. And now murderous mages from all corners of the desert come to rip us apart, and the best you can do is stare at your ankles and mutter--"

Salleh's fist shattered a brick next to Wenyanga's ear. She put her foot through the floorboard between Wenyanga's feet and stopped her open hand an inch from their face, fingers trembling, tendons standing on end. After a breathless second, she pulled back, and the heat in her gaze tried any hint of tears in her eyes.

Quietly, she said, "And you mutter about what else there is to do on your behalf. Fuck you. Stand up, because I won't be deigned to kill a coward on their back.

"That'll do." Anele began the dangerous task of ushering a red-faced Salleh back towards the middle of the room. "We escape this shitstorm, first, then you tear into each other real peaceful like."

"And just how do we do that?" Thula asked. 

"Getting out of here is easy," Anele said. "Getting out of here with our valuables... well, I'd sooner see a mountain jump."

"We're in trouble, then," Thula said.

"Trouble's a bunch of Refineds coming at you at once. What we are needs a tastier word."

"We're fucked," Wenyanga said quietly. Salleh's spit still made their cheek itch, but they couldn't quite find the strength to scratch it. So where had they found the energy to stand up? And why was Salleh giving them that look, as if she suddenly couldn't tell whether to hate or fear them. "There's only one way out."

"I'm done listening to you," Salleh said.

"The voidhells you are," Wenyanga said, "and if you take another step towards me, I think you'll kill me but you'll go in the ground right alongside me. Now shut up, I'm trying to think."

Wenyanga's stoneiris might have been snuffed, but they could still sense Salleh gathering up every spare scrap of Kinetic aura in the room, from the swing of the door in the wind to the displaced air when they exhaled. Good. She'd need that anger, but Wenyanga needed something else from her first.

"What you thinking?" Anele said.

Gods, she was a child. Relative to them, anyway. Salleh could have been halfway through her thirties, and the next youngest was Thula in her fifties. How was her head the coolest in all this? It was a lesson, perhaps, and one Wenyanga made themselves swallow. They blinked and the room became a little clearer.

They met Salleh's gaze. "I'm trying to figure out what I could possibly give you to hand over the Judge's soul once and for all."

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