A drop of blood pearled above Anele's left eye. It itched, but she let the desert wind lick it dry as it blew across the earthpig carcass bleeding on the dune. Its tongue lolled in a frothy mouth that couldn't quite close around its tusks, one blind eye staring up at the sun. The giant mandrill on the other side of it bent low to sniff at it with a bright red snout.
"That's not your kill, friend," Anele said.
She didn't put any threat in her voice, not with four mandrills the size of elephants around her. The smart thing to do would have been to concede the corpse to them.
"I'll share, though."
The head mandrill glared up at her, eyes buried in the shadow of its brow. It lay a hand the size of her chest on the earthpig's flank. Red lips twitched, and as it looked at her, Anele felt its gaze pass over her like an old cloth being swept across her skin. Few divine beasts were powerful enough to have their souls bleed through their eyes, but the intensity in the mandrill's glare rasped against her soul. She frowned at those sunken eyes.
"Tell you what," she said. "You can take the guts and the haunches."
No animal would have held her gaze as long as this one did, but this was a divine beast, at least Crude-level. Its attention soaked into her skin, and something stirred inside her bones in response, driving the beast's spiritual awareness back out to the surface. It flinched, and the three other mandrills in its troop gave low warning barks in response.
They didn't stand as still as their leader; the two that flanked her paced on all fours, eyes flicking between her, the corpse, and the head mandrill as they completed a neat triangle around her. The fourth circled in a wide arc, ready to cut her off if she tried to run.
"Fine." Anele rolled a bruised shoulder and bit back a wince. "The tail too, play dice with the hooves for all I care."
The mandrill dipped low to sniff the earthpig again, and when its gaze left her, Anele felt like her soul had shed an itchy cloak. Safest thing now would be to walk away. She might have to fight the chaser circling the pack but the others would accept her forfeit. She'd only be leaving behind her first decent meal in... Anele couldn't remember how long, and that made up her mind for her.
The earthpig was only ten paces away, intact but for the fist-sized hole in its skull. Anele shook a fleck of bone from her knuckle. Hot winds swept sand between her and her kill, ruffling the dark feathers of her skirt and the ragged sun-bleached shawl that covered her shoulders. It swept heavy matted braids across her face, each one locked with clay so black it reflected no light. She'd painted her body with the same clay, but it had faded in patches on her arms and face, revealing deep red-brown skin ridged with scars.
Three fist-sized pots hung on one hip, a glass dagger on the other; Anele's fingers twitched.
"I'll just take the liver and the head then, if that's alright with you."
Those sunken eyes shot up again, dark beads of cold regard.
Anele slipped the dagger from its loop. "You know what, even if it isn't."
The mandrill launched itself at her, kicking off with powerful haunches that ate up the distance in a heartbeat. A giant paw swung at her in a vicious arc around eye-level. Anele twitched her head back, and thick nails passed a whisper from her nose. A distraction, the real danger was the mandrill's immense body bowling her over.
Once, Anele's sidestep would have been as smooth as a curving river, her body perfect in its balance and strength. But that was when her spirit had been whole. Now, she threw her weight to her right side, lurching under the mandrill's massive shoulder.
Graceful as a leaf in the wind, the mandrill twisted midair, rolling its momentum so it landed low on all fours. Anele faced that itchy gaze again. The earthpig now at her back. The flanking mandrills pawed forward a step.
At some point, the mandrill's flank had passed a handspan from the tip of her glass dagger. With its thick hide, she might have scored a shallow cut. Knowing the blade's nature, a scrape would have been enough, but it would have cost her too. Better to play with safer tools for now.
The power of the mandrill's rush had stirred sand into the air. To her natural senses, that's all it was: the pounding of its paws on the earth, the heat of its breath passing over her head, the shifting sand. Movement. Energy.
Anele focused inward, on a drop of her spirit embedded in her skull. Her soul sat under her liver, powering her physical body. Or at least trying to. It was a broken, ragged thing that reminded her of ashes suspended in oil, and any time she tried to stand up straight it ached like a cramped muscle. But between her eyes was a cool pearl of power. The stoneiris, every witch's third eye. She cracked hers open.
The natural world sharpened in colour and sound. The mandrill's breath became a furnace against her face even from five paces away, and the clay on her arms cooled in its comforting weight. The sun transformed from a disk to a swirl of flame and light that radiated across half the sky, then it faded back into its normal state as Anele's stoneiris adjusted.
Faint white streaks followed the movement of the air where the mandrill had passed through it, like whorls of paint tracing the world. They swirled in pale crashing rivers from where the mandrill had been to where it stood now, a chaotic stream of motion. Power.
Most of it dissipated in the air, but as Anele teased her soul into a slow spinning motion, a few wisps cycled towards her.
The mandrill charged her a second time, and again she evaded with an awkward, unbalanced step. The Kinetic aura ghosted into her soul, cycling around the ball of inky tatters, refining to pure power that soaked into her muscles like blood into cloth. Orgone.
Her flesh strengthened and the throb of hunger in her gut ebbed. Her bones, on the other hand... they seemed to fill. Become denser. Something stirred inside her marrow, not ruffled but not quite asleep either, reacting playfully to the orgone. Anele pushed the dread of that sensation out of her mind. The sky could crack open and drop a voidgod for all she cared -- she needed that pig's liver, and no giant ape was going to snatch it away.
She met the mandrill's shadowed gaze. "This time, like you mean it."
The mandrill charged again, blue lips peeling back against fangs that shone green with Poison aura. Its roar ate up all other sound, and its fur bristled until it looked like a cloud of claws and teeth was falling down on her. Having learned its lesson, the mandrill didn't throw itself past her. It charged only to close the distance before it started swiping, snapping with its long fangs whenever Anele twisted under its guard.
It would have been easier - and safer - to evade in wide arcs that took her away from the mandrill's leathery hands. She moved a little easier now, but it only needed to grab her, or nip the flesh with those venom-coated teeth, but every time it attacked, Anele leaned into it, barely slipping each blow.
Fighting in the beast's shadow was dangerous for her, but it also made it awkward for her attacker's long limbs. And there was the small matter of Kinetic aura building up around them. Crouched low, her head only came as high as its hip, and if she kept her steps sideways, it couldn't twist enough to land a blow with any real purchase. So it stomped.
She'd been waiting for that.
Anele caught its foot on her shoulder. Someone may as well have dropped a horse on her, but she locked its ankle in a vice between her forearms and shuffled behind the mandrill, throwing its balance. She managed to hold her grapple for three heartbeats, long enough to absorb a quarter of the Kinetic aura that had developed around them. With the head mandrill fighting in a tight circle, the white mist had become thick enough to obscure its three other troop members.
On the fourth heartbeat, the lead mandrill yanked its leg up, breaking her grip, and drove its foot through her collarbone. The bone should have shattered, and those hard claws should have torn half the flesh from her ribs on the way through, but having absorbed enough aura to soak herself to the bone with orgone, Anele's body had become harder, heavier. So when the mandrill struck, it broke its foot against a mountain.
There was a loud snap, and then a howl from the beast. She knew that cry. She had a heartbeat before the other mandrills swarmed to save their leader.
Anele raised her dagger. The blade was glass from tip to hilt, roughly faceted as if it had been carved with a bad chisel, but the tip gleamed white in the sunlight. Viper-quick, she rammed it into the mandrill, just below the liver.
If absorbing the Kinetic aura had been like drinking mist, then the power that flooded through her dagger and up her arm was like drowning in an ocean of blood. The mandrill's soul was as powerful as she'd thought, because it threatened to overwhelm the boundaries of her body as it flooded into her. Skin stretched, veins filled to bursting, and her stoneiris turned so cold it burned. Her marrow stirred again, violently this time. Deep inside her bones, something serpantine laughed.
She'd never be able to hold another soul inside of her. She needed to purge it. Now.
Anele ripped her dagger out just as one of the flanking mandrills charged at her. Dizzied by the power of their leader's soul, she backtracked, dangerously off balance. The mandrill dove for her throat with an open mouth, each fang as long as her dagger. Instinctively, Anele put her free hand in front of her face. She swiped at the beast and half its face shattered against the back of her hand.
It still collided into her, half a ton of dead meat smacking her in her face. Her neck snapped back and she heard something pop at the base of her skull. Using her borrowed strength, she shoved the dead mandrill off her before she toppled, twisting on her heel to keep upright. Her body was stronger, but it still felt like she was trying to balance a boulder on one side with a feather on the other. Nothing to be done for that, though, not with a broken soul.
Another roar. She caught the third mandrill by the throat and rammed her glass dagger into its liver. Flexing her soul, she purged the lead mandrill's spirit, pushing it into its companion. The extra spirit had threatened to burst her body's seams, but hers was a body that had been created to withstand that. She felt the third mandrill's heart explode through her grip.
Orgone spent and no longer powered by the extra spirit, Anele's arm folded under the mandrill's weight. The wrist popped and pain shot through her forearm, and she would have buckled, but instinct kept her moving sideways. She searched with blurring vision through her swaying locks, and found the final mandrill only fifteen paces away. It should have killed her. Her left hand was limp, and her right arm so weak she couldn't lift her dagger, but the mandrill seemed to be staring through her.
It thought she was dead already. The nerve. Anele took a stumbling step towards it.
The mandrill fled, racing back towards the distant oasis it had come from.
Breathless, Anele gritted her teeth against the pain in her arm, cycling the rest of the Kinetic aura to dull it. "That's what I thou-."
Her stoneiris flared a violent warning. Danger crawled across her back. Slowly, Anele turned.
Twenty paces away, a man stood. Naked. He was tall, broad at the shoulder, and a long, thick scar ran across his hard belly, as though he'd been gutted by an elephant and quickly stitched together. He stared at her, motionless, with a face that had no mouth. His nose was only a vague imitation, and under his brow, shadows pooled in the smooth grooves where his eyes should have been.
Anele's stoneiris warned her that she wasn't just staring at any man, but her natural sight would have told her that. His entire body was made of iron. Just the pressure of being near his soul was like trying to carry on ocean on her shoulders. When he bent over the earthpig carcass, his metallic limbs flexed and moved like living flesh.
With careful movements, as if it feared its own limbs, the Pettygod reached into the pig and pulled out a dark liver that steamed in the air. A second, semi-transparent organ hung off the liver, glowing a dull yellow like a distant sun. The Pettygod pushed it through the place where its mouth should have been, the liver smearing across his face as he devoured the pig's soul.
Anele had a moment of frustration between her fear, then she felt the Pettygod's eyeless gaze settle on her. The lead mandrill had had a Crude-level soul, so its gaze had only made her skin itch. When the Pettygod looked at her, it stitched a nightmare between the tatters of her soul. There was a physical weight to its regard.
She felt its focus slide down to her navel, where it settled on her broken soul, then it went back to its meal. Without a second thought, Anele ran, limping across the sands. Through the blood rushing in her ears, she heard the Pettygod crush the pig's skull. When it started devouring the stoneiris, a pig's squeel echoed across the dunes.