"It's simple," Wenyanga said. "You just pull it out and ball it up."
Salleh returned a hard glare, her stoneiris putting a glint in her dark gaze. "You are talking about my beloved's soul." She reached into her ample sleeve and threw a clay pot the size of a fist at Wenyanga. "Do not make light of it."
"My would I? It's making enough of its own." Wenyanga twisted the wax lid off the pot and stared into the abyss it held. Soul clay, the only substance in the room not reflecting the light of the Judge's soul.
The silk veil over them rippled with the Seer's contained anger. "You still haven't answered my question."
"Soul surgery doesn't require a powerful soul, just competence with the technique and enough clay to handle whatever spirit's being preserved. Hence why a Crude mage like myself could do it."
"This is not a satisfying answer."
"I'm not known for giving those."
Salleh flexed her soul and a pressure closed around Wenyanga's ribs. Four of their white gold rings glowed, and the Seer's spiritual pressure eased.
Wenyanga held up their heart hand and wiggled four fingers. "Fine. What a surgeon does need, is the right instruments."
"Metal rings. Fitting for a Crude."
"White gold, only the third-best spiritual insulators, but the most stable for the runes I use in my craft. By the way, congratulations."
Salleh pinned Wenyanga with that dangerous, unblinking stare again. An insult would have garnered a kinder look. "For what?"
"The flex of a Perfect soul should have only set off three counter-runes. You set off four. You're powerful enough to advance to Pinnacle already, so why haven't you?"
A flash of a stoneiris, the twitch of a jaw.
"Yeah," Wenyanga said, lathering the black clay on their right hand. "I hear that's one of the toughest ascensions."
"You don't talk about soul arts like a Crude."
"That's because, for all the deficiencies of my soul, I think like a Dreadgod. Move over, this part gets messy."
Wenyanga scooped a glob of soul clay and began lathering their heart hand. The clay swallowed the light of the glowing rings, and somehow seemed to grow darker. Deeper. Wenyanga swore they could have tumbled into the void of their hands and fallen forever. And the Seer had made a whole handful of it in a year... petty as the Seer was, Wenyanga couldn't suppress a pang of guilt for wearing a merchant's fortune as surgical gloves.
"Is he ready, beloved?"
Thula's silver script-pen shone as she traced the final rune around the Judge's wound. Her ink was a mixture of honey and ox blood, bonded with alchemical spirit and smude of soul clay. It burned a deep gold against the Judge's dark flesh.
Soul surgery. Simple, but expensive.
Thula looked up at Wenyanga with worry, and the Seer's glare burned hot. Wenyanga didn't acknowledge their slip. Gingerly, they placed their fingertips against the Judge's belly. The soul clay was cool against their recent burns, but the Judge's skin was feverish, a pool of magma leaking into a cold stream. This was the tricky bit, getting used to the nature of the patient's energy.
The shape of the Judge's soul marked him as a Warmage. Five rings, all firey hot even near death, spinning slowly just under Wenyanga's fingers. That was the danger with souls. They weren't slow to break down like the body was, coming apart in long stretches before the final breath just leaked out of a person. A soul was bright until its vessel died, then it exploded all at once, a star burning up the sky one final time.
It was why the most powerful mages lead bands with Handlers to act as guards, Seers for spiritual consultations, and Lifebonds to keep them vital. And if all else failed, they'd need someone to drag them out to the wilderness before they died. So mountain ranges and deserts and tundras made good hubs for the greatest mages to test themselves against each other. No one could bet on a Pettygod running its fist through a Judge so close to a town.
Thula's hand brushed Wenyanga's. "Are you of a mind to do this, beloved?"
As a doctor, Thula was obligated to ask if she felt someone was mentally unprepared to perform surgery, be it physical or spiritual. Wenyanga, by law and honour, was obligated to reply truthfully.
"Of course I am."
Wenyanga pushed their heart hand into the Judge's flesh and took hold of his soul. As a spiritual organ, the soul was only semi-physical. It squirmed in their grip like a thick, slippery gel, yet at the same time it waged war on Wenyanga's own soul. They felt all five rings on their heart hand heat up in an attempt to quieten the Judge's involuntary flexing. Their sixth ring, on the thumb of their right hand, heated up. Then the seventh.
"Beloved... stand behind the Seer."
The light in the room brightened until everything but the Seer's veils were cast in pure white light. Powerful souls had scents too, a byproduct of the wielder's memories manifesting. The Judge's carried the crisp breeze of a distant sea, a heady vegetable dish, Salleh's perfume...
The eighth ring flared. Wenyanga unpeeled a corner of their soul, lending strength to the runes burning inside the rings.
"It's going to explode," the Seer said, and Wenyanga heard her fear through the Judge's ears.
In that moment, the Seer was no longer Salleh, the stranger who had dared to threaten Wenyanga's beloved. She was Salleh the bright mage, the inspiration to a man who worked tirelessly to raise himself to the ideal version of his own image, the only one he thought worthy of her company, let alone her companionship. She was Salleh, beloved of Cote, who through his Flaw of devotion became the youngest Judge in the Pinnacle's court.
Wenyanga unpeeled the second corner of their soul and pushed the Judge's spirit out of their body. The ninth ring ignited.
Tello's soul had only ignited eight. The thought threatened to break Wenyanga's concentration, and yet it slipped to its end. We... we were so close.
The Judge's soul brightened to its zenith, and the force of its repulsion blew Wenyanga's robes backwards like a gale. Their sleeves rippled against forearms, and Wenyanga had to shut their stoneiris lest the light stun their spiritual sense. It only dulled partially.
Wenyanga pushed their right hand into the Judge's flesh and cupped it over his soul. Now came the hard part, the reason Sanele had called them and not simply asked the Seer to pull the soul out herself.
Cracking their stoneiris open again, Wenyanga pushed their spiritual awareness to the edges of the Judge's light, until their very being was wrapped around his essence. They squeezed, compressing the light. It brightened as it receded from the edges of the room. The slippery ball in their hands bubbled like heated oil, scalding their palms. Still, Wenyanga closed their awareness around the Judge's soul, a fist crushing a mountain into a pearl.
A bead of sweat traced the edge of their nose and slipped between their gritted teeth. Wenyanga's own soul was an implacable wall against the battering winds of the Judge's, but it cracked around the two corners they had flexed. Braids flew backwards, white robes snapped against their body, and Cote's memories pushed against Wenyanga's soul like the steady shove of a reservoir against a dam wall.
Salleh had the right of it, Wenyanga was no Crude, but they were no Judge either. His soul would have overwhelmed theirs...
...if the Judge's face didn't keep shifting to Tello's in their mind.
In the end, magic came down to three factors: the spiritual reserves of the mage, the Flaw that power was channelled through, and sheer will. A mage who mastered all three could become a god, could make and unmake gods.
Could overcome their own shortcomings.
As the tenth ring ignited, Wenyanga peeled open a third corner of their spirit and compressed the Judge's soul under the sheer weight of their will. As the light faded to the colour of old silver, Wenyanga wept into the Judge's wound.
"Why does your magic have names?" Older Sister asked. "Who taught you humans to rank yourselves by it? Leaves do not organise themselves along their branches, they simply accept that there is all the sun and air they will ever need, if they have the will to crawl out of their siblings' shadows."
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