As the sun rose over the eastern dunes, a bead of sweat rolled down to the end of Anele's nose. It hung there as she panted, head low, frayed braids hanging over her brow. Her forearms were buried in the soil, the dagger between them glowing hot and white. Her shoulders ached from the effort of holding her body up all night, and even in the chill of the desert night, her exertions had left her sweating so much that the patches of soul clay on her skin had faded to little whisps of darkness, like smudges on her arms. A shudder of pure exhaustion ran through her, and the bead of sweat dripped to the earth.
It disappeared into soil so black it didn't reflect the light of the glowing dagger. With her soul strained to its last drop, Anele collapsed on a patch of soul clay three metres wide and deep enough to bury an elephant.
She dreamed nothing significant -- she never did after forging soul clay. Instead, she lay there a long while with eyes half shut, back twitching.
While she waited for her soul to mop itself up, Anele watched the stars burn away behind the western dunes. Even as the sun burned her back, she could make out a handful of stars, most of them around the falsemoon, which hung like a dark eye over distant blue mountains. The pearlmoon was higher in the sky, a chalky white that shone violet at the edges. Far north, the third moon was a sliver on the horizon, so large that the top of its head was wide enough to cover half of the northern mountain range in shades of red and gold. The monarch.
All three moons were visible.
That explained why it had taken her so long to forge soul clay. And also why... something coiled around Anele's bones. She ignored it. The Monarch was only just starting its season-long march across the sky. She wasn't in danger yet.
Behind her, something growled. Anele smelled hot fur and acid breath.
"You had to get comfortable, didn't you?"
With a grimace, Anele put her palms to the cool earth and pushed herself slowly to her knees. She half-turned and frowned at the fourth mandrill. It roared at her, venom glistening on its yellow teeth, bubbling on the tongue. The head mandrill's gaze had been cold with intelligence; this one just had the look of a rogue who knew how to kill.
Anele felt her soul; it was still in rags, definitely no condition to fight. She met the mandrill's gaze and knitted the last of her spirit through her body, freshening muscle, galvanising bone.
"Try it, friend."
The mandrill roared again, and when it lowered its massive body, Anele saw the patches of missing fur on its back, and the long scar that ran alongside its spine. There were flaps of skin open on either side, and in places it was deep enough to show ribs. Between two white bones near the middle of the spine, a yellow light leaked out.
"Monarch vulture'll do that to you," Anele said. "And a bleeding soul's no good for either of us -- there's a pettygod in the desert and I'd wager a pig's spirit won't fill him up."
Was that a ping of fear in those dark eyes? Didn't matter. That yellow light may as well have been a drop of blood in shark waters. She'd had to fight four mandrills for an earthpig's liver; Anele wasn't interested in what would be sniffing out a mandrill's.
Then again, her own soul wasn't in the greatest shape. She was halfway to reprimanding herself for even considering hunting something that wasn't pray when the mandrill attacked.
Anele rolled under its charge.
"Tell you what," she said, yanking her dagger out of the soul clay. "If you can kill me, you can eat my soul. Fair trade?"
Under the gaze of three moons and a red sun, the mandrill roared and charged again.
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