The twilight sky darkened to a deep blue all around Helani. Her cloud flew in the lead, a bubbling swell of golden aura, large enough for her to stand on with the unconscious witch sleeping in chains behind her. Salleh and her compatriots flew in close formation behind her, their clouds controlled by Anasii, who flew in the rear.
There was no sound save for the wind rushing past her ears, unsettling her hair, cool against neck and cheek. At this height, the warmth trapped in the sand hundreds of feet below was little more than a dream. The sky seemed to open up at this height, a blue eye with its pupil in miosis. The air was almost too thin to breathe. The heat of the fragment in her inside pocket was almost too hot to bear.
Helani rationalised this. Earth aura did not react well at high altitudes. With her stoneiris, she could see the Earthwitch taking on a sweet, despite the freezing temperatures. They kept their mind far from the thought that someone had cycled True Earth for the first time in a century. They kept it even further from the fact that they were sharing a cloud with a witch whose soul held a fragment of Qamata Herself.
Wenyanga stared at their dirty hands. Their rings had been corroded, the metal blackened in patches to match the venom-eaten spots along their palms. Well, palm. Their heart hand was closed in a tight fist. Wenyanga turned their eyes to Salleh, who sat on a neighbouring cloud, legs crossed, hands rested on knees, eyes closed.
"Here," Wenyanga rasped. They held out their fist. "Owe you this much."
Salleh opened her eyes, clasped hands with Wenyanga, closed them again. It took a couple of heartbeats for her to absorb Tello's stoneiris in her hand, and with it all of Cote's newly refined memories. Wenyanga turned away slightly when a tear ran down the inside of her cheek.
"Thank you," she said.
That was the easier of the two conversations eating at Wenyanga. They lifted their gaze to Thula. Thula had already been staring at them. She looked away. Wenyanga's gaze fell to their dirty hands.
Anele's dream is a vivid thing, because it is not truly a dream. She is within herself, her stoneiris sharply focused on her flesh and all the new secrets of her soul. The weight beneath her liver is a new power that aches as much as it soothes, a belly newly filled after a lifetime of starvation. In the prison of her bones, an old friend is stirring.
That friend is weak for now, because she gave up a large piece of herself to manifest in volcanic form to protect her ward... but Older Sister has kept Anele alive, and in doing so, kept her promise. Her spirit is trapped inside Anele's bones because of a broken promise, but she has kept the most important one.
But Anele has lived with that spirit inside her for the last three years, since Older Sister's true death. It has been a part of her for too long to dwell on. Her friend -- her sister and mentor -- will recover. All her focus is on the ball of pure black energy spinning beneath her liver, terrifying in its density. Its... wholeness wrings her heart of every drop of sadness and joy and fear she's ever known. In that one moment, it is enough to know that in her is a piece of a home she did not even know she had left.
And yet... something else pulls her focus. Two somethings. Her stoneiris now has the sharpness of a Refined but she only feels these two entities because they make themselves known. They aren't quite warring inside her, not yet. She is a battlefield and they are enemies on opposite banks.
Above her is the pressure of a Voidgod. She knows what he is because he makes it known, and shows glimpsed of himself. A flash of frost-speckled beard, old eyes, hard hands. All around him is darkness studded with distant skies. In him is power, more than she can contemplate, more than he cares to make her understand. It is enough that they both know it's there, and that this showing is more of an offering. This is hers to take, it seems, she just does
Unlike the Voidgod, the power of the one below is hidden. Somehow, that makes Anele fear it more. All it needs to crush all her attention is turn its gaze upon her, instead, it gives her a gift. No, it has already given her a gift, one that sits at the centre of her soul now. It gives her a secret. Why? She does not know. That secret is a name.
That name is: Qamata.
Anele is asleep, so she does not feel all the golden clouds ripple and almost come apart when this name is whispered. She does not feel the five volcanos that erupt across the continent at those three syllabuls. Not the two new mountain ranges that form, not the hundred-mile crack in the bedrock of a city far to the north, or the tidal wave that washes away dunes to a remote beach in the south.
She only feels her spirit burn in response, so hot she mutters in her sleep. At the same time, the Saint guarding over her flinches and reaches for something near her breast.
Somewhere in the Chaos, the Voidgod watches the Earthwitch with the eyes of a jealous hawk. Coveting. Qamata watches them all with the lazy gaze of an old forgotten myth, which she is. In fact, she is mostly asleep, orbiting in the chaos around a burning star with her siblings. She is earth and ocean, tide and force and magma and atmosphere. Civilisation has built its back on her while she has slumbered, because -- asleep -- she is mostly disinterested in humans.
That she spares even a fraction's fraction of her slumber to note the witch's existence places something on the horizon of her Path. Greatness or destruction, she does not know. She is dreaming her own dreams, a little -- she thinks -- like the Earthwitch who called her mother.