Salleh crept into the room, cat quiet on soft slippers, poised like a lynx entering a new den. She'd closed her stoneiris against the stench of Death aura pouring through the hallway walls, like a black mist leaking through brick and plaster to darken the whole interior of the temple. More Death aura than even Cote had given off, much more. Gods, it was aura enough for a village rotting.
The door had hung open, but there was none of the overwhelming pressure of a Pettygod within. Salleh's wariness was for a thought that flew through her mind for only a spare few heartbeats. For a rare moment, she felt stone hands close around her ribs at the thought of the Deathsage waiting within.
The reality, as seemed to be the case lately, was worse than any thought.
Thula was on her knees, bent over skirts soaked with blood where they touched the floor. The red pool was wide and shallow, dark as an ocean at midnight until a flash of lightning brought out the colour of it. Red and white, milk in blood. The Death aura was so thick around her it seemed to rise around her shoulders as if she were bent over a dying fire full of ash and smog, even in Salleh's natural sight.
Thula's back shuddered in time with her choked breaths. On one side of that back, long legs stretched out on the floor, barefooted, ankles capped with copper and white beads. An arm stuck out on the other side, ending in a hard, slim hand. Knuckles hinting at arthritis in a few years. Rings on each finger.
No need to ask what had happened. No need even to guess.
A newly minted Pettygod had been mad enough. One powered by a foreign soul swelling with the power of a Judge...
No, madness was not a matter of power. Madness was not the byproduct of anything within anyone. It was the absence of something. Mercy? No. One could lack mercy and still not be fully mad. Fully. For one to take a beloved's life, they needed complete lack. An absence of soul and memory.
Salleh found herself with her hands laid gently on Thula's shoulders, kneeling behind her so that her own robes pooled around the doctor's. Her shuddering was bone-deep. There were words for a situation like this, of course. Words of condolence or anger, maybe shock, perhaps lament if the moment called for it. Words forged over centuries of human commiseration for the single purpose of comforting a new widow.
Words one new widow could never bring herself to insult another with. But there were other words that needed to be said nonetheless.
"Whatever their protests, Wenyanga's soul gave off the pressure of at least a Perfect. I need to staunch it."
Thula stiffened then, and Salleh braced herself for a barrage. Of fists or insults, she didn't know, but she could weather both with barely a scratch. But if Sanele's soul had threatened the village...
"You can't," Thula said.
There was no resistance in the words, no irrational yet logical anger. Just a resignment pushed through a dry throat that put a squeak to the end of the words.
"I can feel it, even with a hollow soul," she said in that dead voice that belonged to newly-made grievers alone. "Can't you?"
Salleh's stoneiris was still sealed tight against the thick Death aura all around. Still reluctant to open it, she finally peered around Thula's shoulder, realising that she'd been avoiding looking at the death wound up until now. There were many places you could puncture a body to produce this much blood, but the stench and the pale aura mixing in the dark pool came from a gut wound, one meant to puncture the liver. The same wound that eventually killed Cote.
Even without her stoneiris, the Death aura pooling around Wenyanga'g gut was so thick that Salleh could barely make out the contours of the wound. Hands still on Thula's shoulders, stifling a shudder of her own, Salleh cracked open her third eye...
She only needed to open a sliver of her spiritual awareness before the seed deep inside Wenyanga's gut began to glow. It was smaller than the nail on Salleh's smallest finger, but so bright it burned the Death smog to a white mist.
Thula's moan pulled Salleh back to herself, and she relaxed her fingers against the doctor's shoulders. They'd been iron tight as she'd fought against her closing throat to suck in a breath, but she was breathing with shallow lungs, and beads of sweat had replaced the rainwater along her brow.
"How?" she whispered.
Cote's Judge-level soul had needed Wenyanga to staunch, but they were a soul surgeon, specifically trained to the task. But any thought Salleh had of staunching had melted under the heat of what lay before her. She simply whispered that one-word question, and stared and stared and stared at the seed that produced all this Death aura. A seed that, full-grown, could have made a beggar of a Paramount's spirit.
The rain howled and Death aura rolled away from the light hidden inside Wenyanga's wound, where the fragment of a Voidgod's soul shone in the darkness.