Wenyanga danced idle fingers over a steaming cup of buna, watching the desert from the Judge's balcony. As far as coffees went, buna was too earthy for their taste. The aroma alone woke a whole household and the finish overstayed its welcome on the tongue, but the bean was grown in the humid mountains of Third Spire, where the Earth ambience was so dense a pebble from the right valley could be crushed into a powder to stabilise weakened souls before surgery. A pill like that in a desert like this would have cost five cattle from the chief's own kraal.
Thankfully, coffee was cheaper, and a lot easier to digest. As far as ambiences went, Earth struck that tragic trade storm of being essential to all mages yet difficult to cultivate and dangerous in large doses.
Wenyanga's gaze flew over the many thatched roofs between Sanele's house and the town square. The last of the cook fires were dying out, hazy blue smoke curling in the afternoon heat. This was a village where a Pinnacle warmage and a Judge had died in the space of ten days, and by the Chief's word no mourning song would be sung for the former, and no one would know of the latter's death. If they did, they would scream before they sung. Wenyanga pushed aside their coffee and reached for the silver plate on their lap. They nibbled half-heartedly at a candied scorpion, and opened their stoneiris fully.
It took a moment to adjust to the blinding light of the major ambiences. The sun cast the sky red and gold swirls in Flame and Light ambience. Deserts produced very flimsy Earth ambience, so the rolling dunes were only a dark brown. The buna was as dark as a cup of shadows, rich with Earth.
No Crude or Refined mage could open their stoneiris fully, and even most non-Seer Perfects struggled to do so for long. Wenyanga held theirs open until it adjusted to the spiritual flashes of the natural world. Slowly, the more subtle colours began to show. People became bright embers throughout the town, the complex colour patterns of living things constrained to human silhouettes. The air took on a white tint that flowed with the wind. What little moisture hung in the air sparkled like light refracting along the edges of an ice shard.
It would have been a dazzling sight to anyone unused to seeing the full intricacy of the world's aura. Even this dry, dying desert was only a sample of how grand and complex the world could be. But Wenyanga saw the slight changes: the haze in the seams where Light and Flame ambiences met, the flecks of silver in the dark Earth, the lack of violet and indigo in the spectrum of Water... for at least three hundred paces on all sides, the spiritual world was wrestling with the Judge's ambience.
Wenyanga had contained most of his soul, but even then he had left behind an embarrassment of riches. That was a problem, especially with a starving Pettygod skulking around the desert, desperate for a meal large enough to fill the ridiculously deep reserves of its soul.
Or an opportunity...
The curtain separating the balcony from the bedroom flicked outward. As Wenyanga closed their stoneiris, once again relying on natural sight, they caught a glimpse of red and purple silks. Salleh floated towards the balustrade. That was something Wenyanga hadn't noticed before. The Seer's robes had at least three layers, each one flowing in such a way that it hid her stride. When she set her hands on the balustrade, her voluminous sleeves did not slide down her forearm.
All mages exerted some control over a physical item, partly as a mark of power, partly as a lifelong exercise to strengthen their wills. Sanele had his sand gardens, Wenyanga their rings, and even near death, the Judge had exercised enough will to keep his hammer intact. Some of the most powerful warmages marked their control by carrying paper swords which, when infused with their soul, could cleave through steel. It took tremendous will, acute knowledge of the material, and a fair reserve of power. Cloth was notoriously hard to master, so when the wind blew one way and Salleh's robes rippled in the opposite direction, Wenyanga frowned at having been impressed.
A lazy barb was already forming on their tongue.
"Cote would not have been proud of his death," Salleh said.
Wenyanga checked their next words. Annoyance or no, grief was grief. There were kind words to be said, but silence was more genuine.
Salleh's gaze was on the horizon, where a sliver of the Monarch crowned the distant dunes. "He would have said it was better to die fighting his equal, so that his friends would not be shamed when telling his story."
"I held the man's soul, so I will spare him a good word: when he went against the Pettygod, he was fighting his better. He knew it and fought anyway."
Salleh bristled visibly. "A Judge is a Pettygod's equal."
"Don't let the holy book fool you, a Judge and a Pettygod are equals only in their level of ascension, but a Pettygod cannot match a Judge's insight or will. Likewise, a Pettygod has reserves that would drown a Judge."
"And so they cancel out. Equals. It's the oldest question in ascension: become the god that drowns in a well of power, or lighten your soul and ascend to the heavens. Philosophers will die pondering it."
"Why should they?" Wenyanga laid a palm over the cup of buna. "I know the answer."
Long, slender fingers squeezed the balustrade until the stone cracked. "Equals or no, my beloved would not have wanted his soul – his life's work – to be reduced to an elixir for some spoilt child of an influential family."
Wenyanga put a finger to their temple and rubbed at the coming migraine. "He refined his soul with the provisions and insights of the Paramount herself. His soul is hers, long before it is yours. It's not as if you won't be compensated for its return, either."
Slowly, Salleh turned, dark gaze flowing over Wenyanga like a gale. "Why are you spoiling for a fight?"
"Because my beloved gave up any chance at magehood to pursue natural medicine." Wenyanga had to restrain their soul from naturally flexing. "As such, she is vulnerable in the company of even the simplest Crude. Yet despite you seizing her soul with the full force of a Perfect, she still set aside her rightful offence to help salvage your beloved's soul."
The force of Salleh's gaze ebbed. "She... she is secular?"
"Fully. Doesn't even have a gaze."
What Wenyanga had mistaken for confusion on Salleh's face had only been the premonition for anger. An anger they knew well at this stage of this specific conversation.
"You are beloved to a non-mage?" the Seer hissed.
"The call of every mage is the pursuit of ascension and insight. How can you practice your craft with a secular beloved at your side?"
"Easy." Wenyanga pushed their cup gently aside. "Whenever someone asks that question, I tell them to do something about it. They never do."
Salleh's nostrils flared, her large eyes dark with judgement. "My apology would be for the doctor alone, for all seculars are to be protected. But your union—"
The conversation and all its emotion burned out in an instant. Wenyanga turned in their seat and threw the cup of buna behind them, a moment before a Crude warmage burst through the curtain. The cup broke between his eyes and he crumpled, clutching his stoneiris. Wenyanga stepped back as a spear pierced through the gap in the curtain. An arrow followed it, but they had already moved aside. A second warmage tried to rush through the curtain, but the silk came alive and swallowed him up before using his own momentum to carry him over the balustrade.
Salleh had produced a ribbon of silk from nowhere. She flicked at the third warmage, this one Refined. It cracked like a whip against the intruder's stoneiris, taking her legs out from under her.
She'd been in the room, cleaning up the Judge's corpse.
Wenyanga stoked their heart to a three-rhythm and unpeeled a corner of their soul. The intruders had masked their souls, which had let them sneak all the way into the room but would have left them severely weakened. Thula still wouldn't have been able to resist them. Wenyanga opened their stoneiris, but they saw even more that organ could. They unpeeled a second corner of their soul, and a heartbeat later, Sanele emerged from the shadows of the room, Thula struggling in his iron grip.
His Seers must have masked his soul, because when the veil lifted he was at full power, the three rings of his soul lighting up the balcony in Flame and Light ambience.
Seeing Thula before she had even appeared was one thing, but now that she was in front of them, Sanele's hand around the back of her neck... Wenyanga's scowl bared teeth as they unpeeled a third corner of their soul.
Scrubbed of every fibre of the pleading, desperate chief he had been only that morning, the pure heat of Sanele's gaze burned into Wenyanga a moment before he turned it on Salleh. "Hand over the Judge's soul."
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