"The technique you're suggesting," the Seer said, "is several steps beyond reckless."
Wenyanga kept their eyes on Tello. "You'll have an easier time smuggling a stoneiris out of town than a soul."
"I wasn't talking about the memory refinement."
"Ah, yes. That."
"That means bringing the Pettygod back to life," Salleh said. "We broke and bloodied ourselves to put him down the first time, and he was as weak as he could possibly be. And you want to feed him a Judge's soul and fill him to the brim with power."
"What we fought..." Wenyanga frowned against the urge to say Tello's name aloud. "That was the last remnant of the man that was. What we would awaken now would be a killing machine, pure and simple."
"All you're telling me is you plan to actively trigger a Pettygod even more dangerous than the one that took everything out of us."
Wenyanga kept their silence about Salleh's tone. This wasn't just a dangerous mage, this was the man who had killed her husband, and who she had set aside her grief to kill. And now, to think, she'd be potentially surrendering her beloved's soul to resurrect the very reason why she had to carry the last remnant of him in a clay pot around her neck.
"Yes," Wenyanga said, walking towards the bed, "sans a stoneiris."
"What difference does that make?"
They placed their fingers on the hollows where the Pettygod's eyes might have been. Right now, he just looked like a sculpture abandoned halfway through by an old master. "Pettygod's got no eyes. He relies on his stoneiris to make sense of the world. Without it, he'd simply attack the most powerful souls nearby."
"In other words, all our enemies?"
"And us, once we're the most powerful by process of elimination. But a surge like that will trigger action in Deserteye, especially if there are members of the Cloudriver family nearby. Someone will intervene before the Pettygod even leaves this room. That's the theory anyway."
"You're weighing all our lives against a theory."
"Correct. The only reason the higher members of the Cloudriver clan didn't intervene sooner is because the Pettygod registered low on the power scale after his, um, altercation with Cote. Cote was the intervention, but ever since, the Pettygod hasn't been a national threat. If we make him one, all this gets solved in the heartbeat it takes a Warden to travel the hundred miles to get here."
"They can't help us, I'm afraid."
"Both of you are forgetting something here, friends."
Wenyanga looked up at Anele, who was still standing on the other side of the bed, arms folded. The strange thing about her expression is that it rarely changed from that slight scowl and shallow crease splitting her brow, save for when her gaze darkened from mild annoyance to that cold regard on the edge of murderous intent. Right now, she looked wary, and her eyes shifted from Wenyanga to Salleh and back.
"I haven't forgotten my soul promise to you," Wenyanga said. "I believe I promised a soul, ironically."
"A Judge's soul or better," Anele amended. "Your words."
"Did I sound that grumpy about it?"
"When we made our contract, I got a sniff of your soul," Anele said. "I know what happens to you if you break it."
That was new, the threat in the Earthwitch's voice. Something was hiding behind the tightness of her arms, the twitch in her jaw. Broken stoneiris or no, Wenyanga could sense the stress of something spiritual on her as clear as the sweat along her hairline. Oh. Oh she really needed a soul.
Thankfully, Wenyanga meant it when they said they played to win.
"Right," they said, tactfully, "and I got a peak at your soul. I won't air your business, but I would be a fool to not honour our deal. But I would like to better the offer."
Skepticism dripped off Anele's face like rainwater. "Better it?"
"I clearly can't offer you this Judge's soul, but I think I know a way to get you what you truly need. And I think there's just enough wiggle room in that 'or better' to allow it."
"What is it?"
"You'll have to go on trust," Wenyanga said. What they didn't mention is that they weren't even sure they'd be able to secure it, but so long as they tried the contract would hold. And they planned to deliver, one way or another. "How about that?"
"Can't eat it, can't fight it, don't trust it." For all her hardlining, Anele shifted uncomfortably. "But so long as we're shifting deals... I promised the Airmage a look at the Pettygod's aspect."
Wenyanga froze. "A dissection?"
"Did you offer her a chance to cut him open?"
"No, just insight."
That was only marginally better. Tello's soul had been the result of decades of experimentation, both successful and failed. Wenyanga wasn't exactly jumping at the idea to offer those secrets to anyone else, but playing to win sometimes meant exposing a player.
"Under supervision," Wenyanga said.
"So long as you don't interrupt."
The soul bond had already been locked between them, so it only tightened under the new terms. The muscles of Wenyangaa's stomach contracted painfully, and even the Earthwitch shifted uncomfortably, but then it was done.
"How long do we have before it's done?" Salleh asked.
"Might be a few minutes, might be half an hour," Wenyanga said. "We're dealing with necromancy on a god-level here."
"It's a shoddy room for it, though," Anele said.
"Speaking of... you won't want to be here when it happens."
Anele gave a wary glance at Tello's face and hugged herself tighter. Had she really fought him to a standstill? What kind of reserves was she hiding beneath the tattered remains of her soul? And why did that soul memory Wenyanga had taken from her put such a fear in them whenever they even thought of cycling?
"Well," Anele said, "so long as we've got a few minutes to spare... I'll watch for scavengers in the garden."
"Sure." Anele turned towards the door. "Anything to get on the ground again."
She slammed it hard behind her, but Wenyanga put that down to there not being an awful lot of doors to practice on in the wilderness.
"Right then," Wenyanga said, turning towards Salleh. "I guess that just leaves-- Oh."
The Seer must have disappeared out the window, because where she had once been standing, there was only a clay pot resting on a wet silk ribbon. With a sigh, Wenyanga stooped to pick it up. The many threads of their soul contracts thrummed tighter when their fingers brushed against the clay jar, each one tethered to their soul with a cold hook that no number of layers could blunt.
A promise was a promise.
They had kept the one they'd made to Tello, even when it would have been kinder to break it. They would find a way to keep these ones, even if it meant bargaining away their beloved's corpse as spare parts. That was the cold place they could go to when everyone needed them to. It had to be.
It wasn't until Wenyanga turned back towards the bed that they realised that, at some point, Thula had left the room too.