The way Wenyanga saw it, there were two problems in front of them. One was inconvenient, the other was a matter of astronomical stakes. The first problem was the matter of Sanele's soul, hanging over the middle of a town filled with thousands of people. If it exploded, dozens would die, the young and the injured mostly, those too weak to cycle through the overwhelming aura of a dying soul. The second problem had just limped through the silk curtains with hefty gaze and a soul like scattered ashes.
If they could solve both at the same time, then maybe all was not lost. Maybe... maybe Tello's death wouldn't be entirely in vain.
"...and even if it isn't."
Salleh's face changed. It was subtle, but there was murderous intent bubbing at the edge of her gaze. Wenyanga couldn't blame her. She couldn't blame anyone who had to stand over a puddle of their beloved's soul, fighting off all-comers, when all they wanted to do was lay down in a bed of grief.
"Let's not be hasty now," Wenyanga said. "The Judge's soul belongs to Salleh, and it is her duty to return it to the Paramount of the Desert."
When the seer's gaze washed over Wenyanga, it was like facing a strong breeze. "What is your game, Surgeon?"
Wenyanga shrugged their good shoulder. "I don't know yet, but I'm playing to win."
Malice stunk up her breezy gaze.
"But the aim is not to strip you of your right," they said, holding up a placating hand. A giggle bubbled up inside them. "The aim is not to strip you of your right. But if perhaps we could--"
The ragged woman shot forward, slid under the lash of Salleh's ribbon, and scooped the Judge's soul into one of her clay pots in one smooth motion. She hit her feet running and leapt over the edge of the balustrade, disappearing to the ground below.
"Insolence!" Salleh leapt after her, saffron ribbons outstretched like the arms of a kill-ready squid.
The warmage, who up until now had been quietly looking for a moment to attack, roared his rage and sprinted towards the balustrade. Wenyanga flexed their soul. He collapsed midstride, and crashed into the cracked barrier. Chunks of stone flew off.
Sighing, Wenyanga turned back towards the room. Inside, Thula had managed to rise to her feet, though she had to support herself against the edge of the Judge's bed as she panted.
She locked eyes with Wenyanga. "What are you wincing about?"
Wenyanga looked out at the open door, to the corridor beyond, and rubbed the elbow of their broken arm. "I hate stairs."
Anele's bare feet slapped against the smooth stone floor. The big building was like nothing she'd ever seen before. The ceiling was as high as a cave's, the walls polished stone and panels of bright wood that made everything smell like over-sweet tree sap. She had no hope of outrunning the seer, but if she could just hide long enough to nip at the Judge's soul, take the edge off the pain in her core, she'd have some hope in the void of slipping away.
Ice crawled along Anele's back, and her legs froze of their own accord. There was something so compelling in the word, a soft warning that threatened to tear mountains apart. Cycling awkwardly to ward against the soul command, Anele turned to face the seer.
She stood on the far side of the room. There was a wide floor between them, grains of desert sand the only imperfection on the smooth, shiny stone. The seer's reflection was like a mirror in the polished stone, so there were two stoneirises glowing white hot at Anele, though only one made her feel like the very air wanted to hurt her.
The seer extended a long, slender hand.
Anele touched the topmost clay pot hanging on her hip.
"If you make me ask," the Seer said, "I'll kill you."
"That's some hard luck." Anele winced as her soul bubbled and stuttered in its cycling. "Already dying. Sorry about that."
The bitterness in the wind thickened. It took Anele a moment to realise that was the seer's gaze. Air aura laced with murderous intent. She prepared herself for an attack, though really she was bracing for a fist she couldn't dodge. It was one thing fighting over a pig with a troop of Crude mandrills, but she had a Judge's soul holstered to her hip, and a Perfect seer staring her down with two dark eyes and one that glowed like a dying star.
If Anele angered the seer enough, maybe she'd just snatch the soul back and let her live with the loss. Maybe she'd kill her quickly. The most viseral thing Anele remembered about people is they didn't mind hurting you slow, if you gave them just enough reason.
The seer lowered her hand, and she didn't cross the room in a swift stride and chop her down. In fact, her shoulders seemed to relax, which only made Anele's bunch.
"Go ahead then," she said. "Eat the soul."
"See now I know it's bad idea, friend."
Anele frowned at the rasp in her voice; there were times in the wilderness when she went months without ever saying a word. It left her throat dry, or maybe that was just the Judge's soul burning a hole in her side.
The Seer's own voice was gentle in a way, but it trembled with power, a storm deciding if it would swell or not. She must have come to a decision, because her laugh was a crack of lightning, and the bitterness in her gaze sharpened like the scent of coming rain.
"Eat the soul, thief, or I'll cut you down."
Wenyanga slipped down the staircase and walked in on an absolute scene. The young witch peeled the lid off one of her clay pots, and a white light washed the walls of the foyer. Wenyanga saw her soul recoil at the power of the Judge's soul, but it also hungered, its whispy tatters drifting in an awkward cycling technique.
"You don't want to do that," they said.
Salleh's stoneiris was the only bright spot in a gaze that was all murder. "Try and stop her."
Two problems. There was a way to solve them both at once, but Wenyanga had to see something first. Test a theory, toss some hope down a bottomless well. They weren't proud of it, but they took a cautious step back towards the staircase as the young woman swallowed the Judge's soul.
Comments (3)See all