Wenyanga folded up the sleeve on their heart hand. The refined warmage laying beside them groaned, still stunned from the strike to her stoneiris. The two Crude guards lay quiet on the balcony tiles, the slight swell of their shoulders the only signs they still breathed.
Up until Sanele had walked through the curtain with Thula in his giant mitt, Wenyanga would have perfectly willing to forgive this all as an ill-thought-out ambush. There was a Judge's soul at stake, after all, Mages who had been lifetime friends had come to blows for less. What did one secular's safety matter to a Perfect chief staring down a piece of power that could push him to the limits of Pinnacle. That hunger in Sanele was a fire; his soul ran rings around the balcony, and the gaze he washed over Wenyanga and Sanele belonged to the breath of dragons.
He was a Perfect warmage flexing the scorching limits of his power.
"Quickly or slowly?" Wenyanga asked.
When Sanele focused his full gaze on Wenyanga, it singed the edges of their stoneiris. "What did you say?"
Wenyanga folded up the other sleeve. "Your death."
The rings of Sanele's soul spun faster as he strained the Flame aura around them. Thula flinched as his grip tightened around her neck. "Do not make this difficult on yourself, Crude."
"Quickly or slowly?"
"I don't have the patience for your games, Crude."
Wenyanga unpeeled five corners of their soul, dampening the Chief's Perfect power until it burned no hotter than a Refined. The souls of three incapacitated guards all shrunk to grains of sand.
"I was talking to my beloved," they said.
"'Nyanga." Thula was panting. Panting. "Please."
Sweat beaded between her brow, where her stoneiris would be had she grown one, had she not given up the power of a mage for the sake of her craft. Her braids had come loose from their knot, falling loosely around the bunched muscles of Sanele's forearm. Wenyanga ignited all ten rings on their fingers. Slowly, then.
A hand clamped around their wrist as they took a step forward. Whatever look they turned on Salleh, it made the Seer frown. Her soul was tampered too by Wenyanga's flexing, but her grip remained remarkably strong, and her gaze was a cool wave of clarity. It blew vainly past the hardened walls of Wenyanga's heart.
"It's not your bargain to make," Salleh said.
Wenyanga's voice matched the Seer's calm. "It's no bargain at all."
"No, I don't suppose it is."
Salleh flexed the fingers on her heart hand, and the Judge's soul manifested in her palm. For a brief moment, it glowed like a star before it dulled under the blanket of Wenyanga's dampening influence. Still, it shone brighter than all of Sanele's flames and, even in the orange haze of a desert afternoon, it bathed the balcony in cool moonlight. Salleh tossed it to the chief.
He caught it in his own heart hand, his surprise giving way to a slight smile as the white light disappeared into his palm.
Wenyanga flipped Salleh's grip with a wrist flick Tello had taught them, so that their fingers were now digging painfully into the back of the Seer's hand. "What did you just do?"
"The right thing," Sanele said, tossing Thula aside. He hadn't absorbed the Judge's soul into his own, only hidden it in his heart hand, but even then his soul was brightening. "Power respects power, and a Seer is not a warmage's equal."
Wenyanga threw Salleh's hand aside and strode to catch a stumbling Thula. They tucked their beloved's head close to chest, fingers tight against Thula's trembling shoulders. There were welts on the back of her neck.
Sanele turned to face Wenyanga, his gaze already growing hotter. "Don't think this was out of malice. I am a chief with a village to guard against coming dangers."
"I'm going to cut off your hand."
"The time for bravado is done, Wenyanga. You have done my people a great favour, I will reward it once I fend off the scavenger that will come for the scraps of the Judge's soul."
"Then I'm going to write an anti-cycle rune on the bone of your forearm so you won't bleed out while your soul spills out of your body." Wenyanga moved towards an overturned chair and flicked it upright with their foot. "It's an excruciating death."
Sanele was already turning towards the bedroom.
"Don't," Thula breathed into the tight chords of Wenyanga's neck.
Painfully, Wenyanga peeled open a sixth corner of their soul. Sanele's rings shuddered and he halted midstep, turned, regarded them again with the restrained heat of a Perfect warmage.
"I have business to be about," he said. "Don't stand in my way."
A seventh corner, and the first of Sanele's rings winked out of existence. His jaw clenched as he poured his focus into cycling his two remaining rings. Flame and Light aura spun around the balcony, ebbing and flaring as their two souls flexed against each other. His second ring thinned until it was just a twine of fire, its light reflecting on the sweat of the chief's brow.
Thula's arms wrapped tighter around Wenyanga. "Beloved," she said. "It is not your revenge to take. Breathe."
Wenyanga didn't pull back their soul, but their fingers relaxed against Thula's shoulder and the pressure in the air relaxed enough for the three fallen guards to start breathing regularly again. Sanele
"By the will of my beloved, I forgive you," they said.
"You've earned a quick death." Gently, Wenyanga removed Thula's arms from around their waist. "Congratulations."
Sanele's rage washed over the effort he was clearly putting into keeping his last two rings cycling. His heart hand began to glow as the Judge's soul powered his fist.
"I have had enough of your mouth!" the Chief said, and the balcony trembled.
"Then let us set aside all talk," Salleh said.
For a moment, Wenyanga had forgotten about the Seer. She stood at the furthest end of the balcony, her pink-red robes billowing despite the still air, her stoneiris matching the light of Sanele's fist. When she flexed her soul, a pressure pushed against Wenyanga's, so forceful that a corner of their soul closed under the weight of the Seer's power.
"I gave you Cote's soul for his sake, not yours," she said. "If he must die, then his final memory must be of battle. Hold onto his power as long as you can, he will be greedy with it."
"We are equals only in ascension," Sanele said over his shoulder. "Do not raise arms against a warmage, Seer."
Quick as a viper striking, a ribbon of silk slipped from Salleh's cowl, the iron bead knotted on its tip flying straight towards the Chief's stoneiris. He caught it in his right hand before it could strike him, but a second ribbon was already darting for his knee. The bead was no larger than Wenyanga's knuckle, but it struck Sanele like a thunderclap, shaking the balcony. He didn't even flinch.
"What did I say?" he growled.
Salleh tucked her hands behind her back. "I raised no arms."
"Insolent, little--" Sanele pushed off with enough force to crack the tiles beneath him, heart hand curled in a bright fist. Bravado or no, he was moving too quick for the Seer to react.
Wenyanga kicked off, steps light and quick, and pushed aside his fist a moment before it shattered Salleh's nose. They slipped the Seer out of the hurtling Chief's path, and when he collided with the balustrade, the stone cracked against his hip. He was already turning, but even off-balance, another ribbon shot out of Salleh's sleeve and struck the base of his skull.
No more than a breath had passed.
Salleh regained her balance a moment after Wenyanga did, and shot the old mage a quick glance. "I had him where I wanted him."
Wenyanga inhaled, switching their heartbeat to a three-rhythm. "Of course you did."
Sanele only rested his glowing fist against the cracked balustrade, but the contact alone blew the stone apart. "There is no honour in packing the odds."
"You took the soul of a dead beloved from a widow's hand," Wenyanga said. "Read the room." They turned to Salleh. "If you have him really where you wanted him, you won't mind if I take off."
For once, Salleh gave Wenyanga a look that wasn't coated in anger. Mostly. "As a secular, your beloved falls under both our protection."
"Hence why you traded the Judge's soul. Mighty noble of you. Don't do it again because I had him right where I wanted."
Salleh turned to face the Chief. "Of course you did. Now begone, we Perfects must hold conversation."
Wenyanga was already halfway across the balcony, They grabbed Thula's hand in haste and made for the door. Parting the silk with their free hand, Wenyanga used the other to hold Thula close to their body and did their best to ignore how heavily she was shaking. It wasn't hard, once their foresight showed them what their eyes were still adjusting to.
Two heartbeats later, Wenyanga's natural sight adjusted from the bright afternoon on the balcony to the darkness of the room. Five Refined warmages stood in a half-circle around the entrance, their souls like ribbons of fire in the dimness, reflecting off their bronze helms and the thick scales of their vests. Two of them held short swords of polished glass, their souls mirrored in the flats of the blades. Two held thick iron chains in each hand. The furthest warmage balanced a hammer on his shoulder made of braided paper, though Wenyanga could feel the weight of it.
Within the half-circle stood three figures in similar robes to Salleh, only theirs were the deep red of burnished sand. Beneath each cowl glowed a silvery stoneiris. Sanele's three Seers, all Perfect.
The sounds of two Perfects locked in combat thundered through the curtains. No going back, no going forward.
"Surrender," said the middle Seer.
Tello would have gone through, then come around to go through again--
Something in the middle Seer's voice caught Wenyanga's attention.
"You were the priest who sang for Tello," they said. It came out as an accusation.
"Surrender," the Seer said again. "You are not who we want."
Wenyanga pinned all their focus on that obnoxiously bright stoneiris. "No, today I'm really not."
"We're grieving, tired, and you've ambushed us," Thula said, squeezing Wenyanga's hand. "A fight would end poorly."
"Listen to your beloved," the Seer said.
Thula let go, her fingers cool as they brushed against Wenyanga's burning knuckles. She slipped to the corner of the room where her giant medical kit lay abandoned, and knelt before its giant lock.
"Actually--" she popped the lid open "--I was talking to all of you."
Wenyanga peeled ten corners off their soul, and the half-circle retreated a step back.
"Go on, then."
The two outermost warmages charged first, but Wenyanga flew straight at the middle Seer.
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