Anele crested a low dune, and the desert town came into view. It was bigger than the collection of nomadic tents she sometimes saw around the occasional oasis. Much bigger. The houses were squat works of red clay, built in five rings around a wide square. Someone important must have died, because the square was packed and the wind brought her the tail end of a mourning song. No, there were guards clearing the square... most of the mourners were in the next street over, and the empty pyre was halfway to taken down.
Had they done all that for the Judge? The force of a Judge dying was unmistakable, but the town still stood. It should have been a crater.
Frowning, Anele focused on the Light aura all around her and inhaled deeply. Her soul began drawing it in, cycling like a whirlpool just under her liver. The Light made her skin itch, always had. Earth aura had always been easier to cycle, especially at night, but the desert sand produced a flimsy version of it, and as tired as she was, drawing Earth was like trying to quench thirst by drinking mist. Her soul quivered as it absorbed the Light aura. She'd be sick for a week even off the tiny bit she'd taken in, but it took some of the tension out of her muscles and replenished a thimble of energy.
The soul clay she'd lathered her skin took a lot of power to reinforce in combat, and even now it was slowly absorbing the dregs of her soul to keep her cool under the red sun. Anele cycled just enough Light to keep her to stop shivering, then exhaled, slowing her cycling until her soul slowed then stilled. Still didn't stop her from dry heaving.
"I'm not happy about it either, you know."
Anele groaned as she straighened, but the Light had done the trick. Opening her stoneiris now no longer felt like trying to tear a red wound open. Peeling it open a little, Anele waited for the major auras to soften in her spiritual sight. She looked about, frowning. The Judge's soul should have left thousands of fragments suspended in the air, and any one of them would have kept her soul brimming for a month. The only white light around was in the largest building, a wide collection of houses inside a low wall.
A fist twisted up Anele's guts. The Judge was dead but his soul was whole. Whoever had managed that, they must have been equally as powerful, but she sensed no other Judge-level in the town. But there were more Refineds than she could count inside the big building, and a few Perfects too, all concentrated in one room on the far side. Their souls were coppery and silvery lights shining through the physical walls, and the white aura of the Judge's soul shone right at the heart of them.
Walking into the heart of that was a death wish. This was a whole town. Anele could probably find some regular food somewhere in there, and people were generous to strangers on funeral days. Anele turned her gaze inward, at her soul that floated like a torn rag suspended in oil. Regular food wasn't what she needed. And if a fragment of the Judge's soul would have been a month's worth of replenishment, then the whole thing was...
...suicide. There were more mages packed in that one room than she could count, their lights practically bled into each other, and the way they quivered meant it was a proper dog fight in there.
"There's a Pettygod somewhere behind you," she said to the hot afternoon wind. "You can let the sword run you through from behind or you can pick the rib it goes through."
But if she could just get to the Judge's soul... Anele's bones quivered at the thought, a physical vibration through her. In her spiritual sense, she caught the barest sense of satisfaction from inside her marrow.
"Shut up. I don't care how hungry you are."
Cycling the flimsy Earth aura to settle her stomach, Anele slid down the side of the dune on bare feet, gaze pinned to the silver and copper lights that fought above the town.
Wenyanga braced a forearm in front of their chest, and pushed their soul into the muscle and bone there, reinforcing it. The paper hammer struck like a meteor, sending them flying through the curtains and into the balcony beyond. By the time Wenyanga hit the tiles, their soul had spread back to the rest of their body, so smacking their head against the balustrade didn't kill them cold.
Salleh and Sanele's battle had gone up to the rooftop. The chief was pouring most of his focus into deflecting the iron-studded ribbons Salleh lashed him, the rings of his soul spread wide like a halo of fire over the manse. The man certainly didn't go down as easily as his seers, but every time he turned aside an iron stud with his glowing heart hand, he flinched. Salleh targeted it almost exclusively.
Look at that.
But Wenyanga could only spare the Perfect battle a passing glance because the curtains split again. The warmage strolled out leisurely, hammer in his giant fist. Though it was made of ribbons of paper braided into the shape of a long-handled warhammer, it weighed enough to break a groove in the tiles.
"A word of advice," Wenyanga said, pulling themself up by the broken balustrade, "you're pouring far too much of your soul into that thing. You'll tucker yourself out in a few swings."
"I've never needed more than two," he said, eyes gleaming from the shadow of his helm. "One to knock down, one to break."
Panting, Wenyanga found a smile that was mostly a grimace. "You've got one last hit then."
The Refined warmage charged with a roar that would cow a lion, swinging his hammer in a flat arc with one hand.
Wenyanga peeled back the tenth corner of their soul and met the hammer's head with a fist.
That is all he knows as his heavy body pressed a groove into the sand. His fingers twitch, then clench, and sand grates inside his iron fist. His body is so strong that he only hears the grating, he can't even feel the dagger plunged into his gut. But he feels the hunger, it is a deep well in the middle of his soul and it draws too much of his depleted power.
So much of his essence goes into enforcing his body and keeping it whole. Bending an iron sword for over a day would deplete even a Perfect blacksmith, and yet for him, every twitch, every step requires his soul to bend iron like living flesh. It is more uncomfortable than difficult. He is a Pettygod, after all.
He lays for long moments under the sun. He does not feel its heat on his back, all his focus is turned inward, at the hunger. His soul is a vortex, and hovering over it is the mandrill's soul. Even before his ascension, the Pettygod had been a master of refining aura, and eating a soul is no different. Though he has no real lungs, he inhales, strengthening his cycling, breaking down the spirit that the hunger tugs so desperately at. When it is as pure as he can make it, he lets go and the hunger swallows. This is the soul of a divine beast on the verge of Refined, powerful for its kind.
In the vast, empty reserves of the Pettygod's soul, it is like a single raindrop splashing on the cracked floor of a dry river. His duel with the Judge took most of his power, and though he won, his prey fled before he could feast and restore himself. Clever mage. The Judge had known he could not beat him, his ascension alone defined the laws of power that governed the world! But his prey had weakened him and then denied him the feast that was rightfully his.
But the mandrill is enough for now, to help him stand at least. The Pettygod rises slowly, like a man caught in the after-clutches of drink, and turns his faceless head to a point on the horizon. Casually, he lifts a hand and snaps the glass hilt jutting out of his gut. Who stabbed him? An insignificant question. He flexes the muscles of his stomach, crushing the blade embedded there to powder, then opens his stoneiris.
Where he is looking, a white light flares in the horizon, bright as a distant star.
The Pettygod takes off like an arrow, sand and chunks of earth exploding in his wake. Such powerful movements strain the absorbed soul and awaken that hunger in him again, but it will not matter soon. He strides towards his meal. Who will stop him?
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