Chapter 69

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Salleh dragged an arm under herself and tried to rise up to her knees and elbows. A warm weight was pressed against her side. Thula. She put her free hand against the doctor's nose to feel if she was still breathing, fingertips touching her brow, where a stoneiris should have been. She was unconscious but alive. Sure that Thula had survived the worst of that ungodly pressure that had stunned them both, Salleh rolled over onto her back, her robes sliding off Thula's side.

Panting, staring up at the ceiling, it took a moment for the wetness against her ankle to register. Blood. She pulled herself away from it, sitting up and squeezing her eyes shut to ward against the dizziness drilling into her temples. Then the sound of a building collapsing jolted her to her senses. 

**

It is difficult for Wenyanga to understands what happens to their body. Their awareness, thrust back into the Deadwater, is scattered all around the room, but like iron filings drawn to a magnetic force, that awareness drifts towards the axis of their being. A soul ripped open. Inside it, a seed. 

**

Salleh had always been light on her feet, but she got up with all the grace of a mugged drunk now, stumbling towards the shattered wall. The rain was gone, and the afternoon sun that shone down was so bright that she could barely see through the glare of the world beyond. Still she slumped forward, catching herself against one of the few loose bricks still hanging on for dear life. Rubble fell down to the damp grass a story below as she leaned over the edge, eyes cut to slits against the new brightness, stoneiris still reeling.

Then she saw the Elephant Eater not thirty paces away, its head wider than the street, horns taller than the medic centre. It spiltI out of a fissure in the earth, like a demon coiling into the world, its thick body crushing buildings to rubble as it coiled itself across three streets. Salleh looked to her left, her right, and saw a wall of scales twenty feet tall in all directions. They were encircled by an obsidian dragon with eyes like twin suns and a moon of a stoneiris between them.

When its giant head crested arced down, that's when she noticed the smaller figure holding onto one of its horns. Anele. She lost her grip and disappeared as she hit the street. When the Elephant Eater struck down, its head hit the street like landslide, tearing up clay and brick alike as it rose again, a Pettygod in its giant maw. One of its fangs had pierced right through his chest, thick as an elephant tusk, and his iron arms went limp as he was thrown thirty feet into the air. That mouth opened wider than a cavern, glowing orange as the Pettygod disappeared into its maw, and took Cote's soul with it.

"No," Salleh whispered, then, when the realisation hit her a second time, she screamed it loud enough to turn graves. "No!"

**

In a space of no meaning, awareness pours into a torn soul, soaking the fragment of a Voidgod embedded there. Saturated, the fragment stitches the ragged soul around itself in a bright, warm cocoon. That warmth seeps into cold flesh. It eats at meat and fat and organ tissue to make new blood, even as it stitches the hole where Death aura pours out like chimney smoke. That billowing black aura thins to a wisp until new flesh and skin closes around it.

**

Salleh's fingers crushed the brick she supported herself with to powder. Her scream still echoed in the room, in her ears, deeper still. Since Cote's passing, grief had been a coldness at the tips of her fingers, an itch along the skin, but now, watching the final fragment of him disappear into the Elephant Eater's maw, the coldness soaked into her body and cracked the bone. 

The Elephant Eater curled as it rose on the street, its head as big as the medic centre. Its giant horns curled like a ram's, creamy against its matte black scales. Only the sun's reflection separated its glossy black eyes from its head, and its stoneiris glowed like a blue star between them. It was looking right at her.

Salleh gathered everything she had into her soul and bared her teeth. "Give him back!"

**

This space that has no meaning... it gains a little. First, it becomes cold. Not quite freezing because, somewhere millions of miles away, there is a star that burns so hot that even after travelling across the Chaos, its light is still warm enough to thaw the cold from an outstretched hand that lays limp on a floor. The floor is stiff -- wooden -- and speckled with water from recent rain. The body attached to that hand is in shadow, so it is warmed only by the new blood that lays still in its body. That is not good, blood is made to move.

And so a heart beats.

**

Salleh's anger and bravado shattered under the wave of fear of a dragon baring its fangs at her. When the Elephant Eater hissed, her robes fluttered in chaotic patterns as the aura stitched into them fizzled. Its attention alone locked her in place. She couldn't move or scream. She would die. She would follow Cote's soul down the beast's venom coated throat and die. And she wasn't ready.

What did it matter? When had life ever waited for her to be ready?

A single tear ran down the side of her nose as the Elephant Eater rose high enough to blot out the sun. Glossy eyes pinned her to the spot, a white-hot stoneiris speared through her soul, and the Elephant Eater launched itself at her with the force of a falling star.

Something blurred past her shoulder and leapt out of the open wall. Wenyanga's bloodstained robes rippled like rags in the wind as they launched themselves right at the descending dragon's mouth. Its focus shifting, the dragon let go of its spiritual grip on Salleh. She scrambled back into the room to cover Thula in her robes and braced for the both of them.

**

When the Elephant Eater's mouth was close enough to blot out most of Wenyanga's vision, they peeled a thousand layers from their soul.

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