Wenyanga stared at the iron form that was once their beloved. Tello's shoulders were as rounded as they had been in life, his chest a flat plate of muscle, the curve of his jawline peeling back memories of laughing nights and red embers floating up towards a conquest of desert stars. Even as that blank metallic face regarded them, they couldn't help but feel the warmth of flesh against their side, a beloved's breath cupped in their ear, a hard bicep nestled in the curve of their neck and shoulder.
A tear pearled in Wenyanga's eye. When they frowned, it slid down their nose. Pride alone kept them from wiping it, and, perhaps to spite their own grief, they widened their smile.
"You look terrible, belov--" Wenyanga bit down on the last word. This was not Tello, not anymore. "Although no worse than you looked in life."
There were only ten paces between the two of them. He took three steps and cut the distance in half. Once, Tello had been a man in possession of a languid gait that accentuated his long, muscled legs. Now, he moved like a puppet on uneven strings. It didn't stop Wenyanga from taking a step towards him.
"What are you doing?" Salleh asked.
There was a sharp edge of fear in her voice. Why wouldn't there be? Here among them stood a Pettygod, a form of mage that was more concept than human, a taboo of the divine arts. Tello's metallic hands glistened with fresh blood. A monster.
Wenyanga placed a trembling hand on his chest.
They had seen Tello kill before. The type of killing where heroes slew monsters, or a duellist struck a death blow out of self-defence. He had been a powerful mage, a genius of the divine arts, of course, but he had killed in anger before. And yet, when Wenyanga's gaze crawled up the broadness of his chest to the grooves where his eyes should be, they couldn't convince themselves that this was anger either.
This was their beloved. The secrets of his soul were open to them. When Wenyanga's fingers drifted down to the hard ridges of his stomach, they felt the hunger churning in him. The unfulfilled, endless depths of a Pettygod. The burns on their fingertips itched against his cold skin.
"It's... it's been a while, big guy."
His gaze was an anvil on Wenyanga's soul. They flinched as he slowly raised a hand, but he only cupped the elbow of their broken arm. His hands were hard iron, but his touch had a lover's lightness, and his thumb smeared blood on the white sleeve.
He's not real.
Of course he was. He stood before them, didn't he? It was frame, his hands, and when Wenyanga passed their gaze through his core, they saw that it was his soul too, slowly cycling, endlessly deep... but there in his soul too were white specks, at least twenty. The souls of dead Crudes. The blood on Wenyanga's sleeve soaked through and chilled their elbow.
They put their forehead to his metallic chest, and for the first time since Tello's death, Wenyanga wept.
Cold hands brushed back their long, grey locks. Incomparable in their gentleness, stinking of death. Wenyanga almost, almost melted into him. At the last moment, they pressed their palm against his stomach and pushed away.
Tello flexed his soul.
Wenyanga counterflexed instinctively, but the weight of a Pettygod's soul still pushed them onto their knees. They grabbed Tello's calf to keep from falling over as layer after layer of their soul unpeeled in a reckless attempt to keep his from crushing theirs. He was almost fully depleted of power, and the many souls sitting in his core hadn't been processed yet. That was the only thing that kept his flex from killing them.
And yet, he had still tried.
A hundred layers of Wenyanga's soul drifted into ether as they ripped them apart. The force of their flex haemorrhaged their soul, but it released a pulse of aura that sent Tello stumbling two steps back. It shattered the panels of wood along the walls and made the stone floor scream as cracks fissured in the marble around them. Every runelight in the ceiling died out at once.
Anger ate through logic like an acid, so Wenyanga did not chastise themselves for charging a Pettygod. They forced their bruised, bleeding soul into their fist and lashed a strike at Tello's core. Their fist glowed with the aura of a ten-colour rainbow, but the bright hues were muted by the shadow of murderous intent. The blow struck true.
It only dented Tello's stomach slightly. It shattered at least two of Wenyanga's knuckles. They gasped at the pain for only a moment, then the sunlight streaming in from the windows ran along Tello's fist as he grabbed their chin with one hand and raised the other above his head.
Something crashed into the back of his knee, knocking him off balance before a saffron ribbon wrapped around his neck and pulled him down. He crashed onto his back, and Wenyanga could only watch their beloved wrestle against the silk ribbons entangling his limbs as the young, ragged witch dragged them backwards by the scruff of their robes.
Only when they were pressed against the far wall did the young witch stop dragging. She hauled Wenyanga onto their feet with one arm, and pinned a dark gaze on them. Her soul smelled like peat.
"He's not as strong as a Pettygod should be," she said, "but he can still kill us all. Me? I'd say you have the look of someone who knows how to keep that from happening."
"You... saved me?"
"What has fangs must not be prey." She said it as if it explained everything. "What are the veins of the land?"
"The what?" Wenyanga had to tear their eyes from Tello ripping through Salleh's ribbons like wet paper to meet the child's gaze. She had a look of profound frustration on her round face, and seemed to chew a curse before she spoke again.
"The... what do you call it? Plan. What's the plan?"
"He's a Pettygod. There is no plan."
"Don't be dumb. I managed to put him down for at least an hour, and you're the one who looks like you know him."
"You fought a Pettygod?" Wenyanga frowned. "And survived?"
The young woman sneered at her, then pulled back her hands as if Wenyanga's shoulders were suddenly crawling with poison. "A hunter made prey," she said, and though Wenyanga couldn't make sense of them, there was a great deal of contempt in the words.
She turned and rushed back to the fight, leaving Wenyanga slumped against the wall, leaving them to watch. Numb. And yet, even then, their mind read the battle, turning pages as a cold pain soaked into their broken hand.
As far as Perfects went, Salleh was undoubtedly one of the most gifted Wenyanga had come across, yet even her ribbons ripped easily whenever Tello -- no, the Pettygod -- tore his limbs free. Only her wily approach kept her alive. All of the Seer's focus was poured into keeping him off-balance. Any mage that couldn't set their equilibrium and focus their breath couldn't cycle properly. Even then, Tello had been a genius. He cycled even as slipped and twisted so that he landed on his knee and not his side, a feat comparable only to digesting alcohol at a dead sprint.
With a movement that balanced grace and power, he slipped two ribbons and got to both his feet. The ragged mage flew at him in a limping, awkward run and drove her heel into the small of his back. He twisted to swat her away, but Salleh's ribbon wrapped around his wrist and slowed him just enough for her to duck out of the way. But now she was on her back, between his feet, and he looked down at her with the broad figure of an executioner. When she tried to scramble away, he flexed his soul, pinning her to the stone.
Her clay pots rolled across the floor, but she only spat at his thigh. "Go on then, friend."
Tello raised his foot. Even as weak as he was, he would cave her chest.
Wincing, Wenyanga flexed their soul. It was like punching a bruise, but it disrupted Tello's flexing for a moment, and when they clamped their soul up again, there was a brief heartbeat where the air had no pressure. He drove his foot down, but the mage rolled once.
Tello's foot sank into a puddle of soul clay.
The young woman lay flat on her stomach, head rested on her forearm as she panted heavily. Without looking, she slid her heart hand onto the dark puddle of clay and flexed her soul, activating the Judge's power inside it. The Pettygod flew backwards, spinning in the air as he crashed into a wall on the opposite side of the room.
Salleh was already scooping up the soul clay.
The young woman grabbed a hold of the Seer's robes and dragged herself up to her feet.
She fixed Wenyanga with that gaze that reminded them of cold earth again. "Come to your senses, have you?"
"You survived a Pettygod's flexing."
She scowled. "So did you."
"And if we make it out of here," Salleh said, rising, "I will hang you both upside down until you tell me how."
On the far side of the room, the Pettygod lay slumped against the wall. Wenyanga pushed their gaze into him. Even as he recovered from the charge of the Judge's soul, those tiny white lights inside him were winking out as his core absorbed the power of those he had just killed. Most of those people had been Crudes; they'd offer his soul little in the way of power, but each one was a tiny, bright reminder of what Wenyanga had built.
Tello's bloody fingers twitched.
"He's stirring," Salleh said. "We need to go."
The young woman limbed towards one of her nearest pots. "If you think we're outrunning a Pettygod, you may as well swallow that Judge's soul yourself."
Salleh's stoneiris flared as she fixed a hot glare on the back of her neck.
Wenyanga had no hands to pull themselves up with, so they had to settle for sliding up the wall on their back. "I think I've grasped the veins of the earth."
That earthy gaze fixed on them again, and the young woman frowned in confusion. "You what?"
"I... um. I may have a plan."
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