Overwhelmed. Anele collapsed onto the floor, her palms hot against the cool polished stone. She stayed on her hands and knees through stubbornness alone. Never fall on your side, never let your head sink lower than your soul. The lesson was an iron rod between the spasms in her back, and ice in veins that spidered through flesh that warmed and warmed and warmed. A drop of sweat fell off the tip of her nose, and her ragged shawl was already damp around her shoulders.
The Seer's laugh echoed off the walls. "It doesn't quite sit so well, does it?" she said. Anele felt her gaze, a cool wind flowing over her back, but it couldn't penetrate the heat simmering under her skin. "Sanele lasted five minutes before Cote started eating him alive. Let's see how well you fare, thief."
A spasm ripped along Anele's spine. Her fingers flexed in pain, cracking the marble beneath them. She gasped, and through the pain there was a moment of clarity. The cracks in the stone spidered between her fingers, and there was a brief moment where she was sure, beyond all doubt, that if she stood, she would stand tall and straight, and her soul wouldn't feel like a fist knotted in her gut. But this was a Judge's soul washing through a Crude body. If it healed, it was only to mark the passage for a spiritual inferno.
Anele's trembling jaw unclamped as if someone were prying them open, but she made no sound. That scream died in her throat, and she was ashamed that it had even gotten that far. If she died, it would be as she had been taught, silently, with great contempt, and eyes locked firmly on whoever struck the blow. She met the Seer's gaze, and was laughed at again.
Even through the body-burning pain, Anele sensed the other mage. The Crude one whose soul was like a falling sky. They shuffled closer to the Seer.
"Now I understand you're... upset. Grieving. Hurt." If there was fear or worry in their voice, Anele was too twisted up with pain to hear it. "But there is the small matter of a Perfect soul -- of largely Flame aura, I might add -- ready to explode over the city."
The Seer took their eyes off Anele, and that cool breeze evaporated. "So go deal with it, and leave me to mine."
"I would, but I'd prefer to take her with me. Alive."
"You won't get anywhere near her, not until Cote has taken out his portion on her disrespect."
"Seer. Search her soul."
A long moment passed, one in which Anele trembled down to her elbows. Her head lolled and she had to slide onto her belly to keep her stoneiris above her soul. A breeze washed over her again, then it faded, leaving the raw heat of the Judge to boil her blood and cook her marrow. All her body wanted to do was burn, all her soul wanted was to cycle in the desperate hope of refining the Judge's power to keep it from eating her flesh and spirit. Anele bit down hard on her forearm and forced her soul to be rock-still.
"She's not secular," the Seer said. "She has a soul that has begun to be shaped, therefore she is a mage and I am within my rights."
"No, she's no secular. But look at her soul again."
"I don't need to. It's been torn apart, tattered beyond use. A classic case of spiritual atrophy. She's still--"
"What else, Seer?"
A shorter pause, another breeze.
"What... what is that inside her bones?"
"Who knows. But we'll never find out if she dies."
"It doesn't excuse her actions."
"See now, she's a scavenger, not a thief. There's a difference"
"And what's that, Wenyanga?"
"A scavenger was failed. Besides, do you think your beloved wants his last memory to be the death of a hungry child?"
"I..." An angry huff.
Anele's soul trembled, desperate to cycle, to pass the Judge's power through the channels in her body and refine it, but that way lay death. She would sooner push magma through her veins. A cold wind pushed against her shoulders, and this time when she looked up, some of the anger had gone out of the Seer's eyes. Without the murderous intent to brighten them at the edges, they reminded Anele of dark honey. Hot spasms crawled down her spine. For all the good that did her.
Anele turned her focus inward, at the nucleus of the Judge's soul, a white sun hovering above the shadowy tatters of her soul. She wrapped those smokey, tattered tendrils around it, and rose to hands and knees again.
"I could spare you," the Seer said, "but what could you possibly offer in--"
Anele opened her stoneiris and pushed the Judge's soul into her palms. With the heat of the Judge's soul channelled through her palms, with his spiritual energy crackling through the nerves in her hands, with all her personal insight, hard-earned through years in the wilderness alongside masters of the divine arts who looked down on the human practice of nature's greatest wonders, Anele took hold of the floor, her fingers once again digging into the marble as though it were no more than a surface of eggshell.
With one great shove of her soul, she turned the stone beneath her hand into a puddle of stiff mud, so dark it reflected no light. Another shove and she expelled the Judge's spirit into the soul clay.
It was like an ocean leaving her body. It took so much of her strength with it, a tide leeching the sand as it receeded. Her soul was a husk, so she didn't really need to worry about its alignment with her stoneiris, but old lessons died hard. The oldest of them made her look up at the Seer's stunned face, at the sneer twisting her lips, her gaze that slowly lowered to the clay Anele's hands sunk into.
She'd... she'd been so close to what she needed, but there was no way to hold the Judge's soul long enough. Not yet. The insight would have come if she could have just pushed herself a little longer. Something tickled the inside of her bones, disappointed.
"Is that..." The Seer's slippers were whispers on the polished stone. She sunk to her haunches at the edge of the pool of soul clay, saffron robes pooling around her. With a trembling hand, she reached down towards the dark clay, then pulled her hand back. "Soul clay."
The Crude mage's voice was equally quiet. It unnerved Anele. "Just like that, in a flash. A year's worth of soul clay... in an instant." They seemed to fight their lips until a weak smile sat there. "Child, if you don't mind me asking--"
The Seer grabbed her neck and pulled her to her feet. She strained more than Anele would have thought. Unlike her gaze, her breath was hot on Anele's face.
"You will tell me exactly what you are this instant. How did you produce so much soul clay?"
Anele flinched as her back popped. "Doesn't matter. You're welcome to stuff it in your throat though, friend."
The Seer bared her lips back in a snarl, but whatever words she'd prepared, they died when distant screams drifted into the room. There was the heavy rumble of a tree falling. No, a tree. More screaming, and the wet slap of flesh against something hard. Then the air turned sour with the stench of iron.
The smile fell from the Crude's face. "We need to go."
The screams grew closer. Anele had seen no warmages on her way in, just a town of Crude mages. Nothing stopped the screams, but they seemed to be dying out on their own. It took no longer than ten heartbeats, but they all stood there frozen, until the street just beyond the walls fell silent with the final, unmistakable sound of a skull splintering. All around the city, more screams rose, and the chaos of people fleeing.
But their screams weren't interrupted by dying. Instead, the outer wall of the manse thundered. Once. Twice. A section of it fell. The air ripped apart, exploded, and then the Pettygod stood among them. Somehow, his iron feet didn't slip on the floor, but its sheen cast his reflection in the marble. But it wasn't Anele he turned his featureless gaze to. Or the puddle of soul clay in the floor.
The ridges in his neck moved like living muscle as he twisted to face the Crude mage. Wenyanga. That was their name.
The fear was bright in their eyes, but they mustered that small, pained smile again. "Hey, Tello."
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