Chapter 4

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Anele threw the last scrap of wood into fire pit, rubbing her nose with the heel of her hand. She'd dug the pit with her bare hands, scraping out sand and knuckling the bottom until it was compact. The dents her knuckles had imprinted on the pit were a little darker than the sand around them, like glossy scarabs moving four abreast. She kicked sand over them, burying all three of the ant-eaten logs she'd found in the last two hours. 

A fire would have been good for warmth, but bone mites were attracted to people who slept by fires, elephant-eaters naturally drifted towards warm earth, and monarch vultures were ridiculously light sensitive. All hard lessons. When Anele patted down the mound of sand, she did so with hands pocked by dozens of tiny bites. When they started to itch, she smeared the soul clay on her forearms over them. The itches cooled, even the bite of the evening wind melted away from her hands. No, a fire was dangerous in the Desert of the Flame Spire. Besides, she had something better in mind. But first, she'd need a spark

Her bones stirred slightly and a tiny tremor running through her body, but it settled again.

"Go back to sleep, friend." Sighing, Anele cracked her stoneiris open. 

She flicked her dagger out of its loop, grabbed it hilt up, and drove it into the sand, burying her arm to the elbow. With her spiritual sight open, she could make out the faint white outline of her forearm. Her network of veins was a little sharper, crawling along the fainter flesh. Her bones looked as solid as white stone, glowing as bright as the pearlmoon.  

A second figure glowed just under the point of her dagger, a squirming little thing as thick as a finger. 

"Beg pardon, friend." Anele thrust her arm deeper, and the dagger went through the worm. 

Souls were relative things when it came to size. A regular viper, living only off mice and hares, might have a spirit the size of a knuckle, but an elephant-eater's diet put the soul of a dragon in its long body. It all came down to the nature and power of the aura one refined their soul with, so when Anele's dagger drank the worm's spirit, it wasn't like trying to hold the chaotic fire of a mandrill inside her veins. 

Warm gold ether swam up her bone-white fingers, leeching colour into them. Anele focused on holding the worm's soul below the wrist. It floated inside her fist like golden smoke, much more concentrated than if she'd let it fill her whole body. It was still uncomfortable. The sensation reminded her of swollen veins in her feet after a long day of walking.

Funny, that. Anele remembered more near-death beatings than she had any right to survive; she'd probably even forgotten the worst ones. It still surprised her that small discomforts made her frown.

Pain was funny like that.

Groaning, she sank lower onto her haunches. Her knees popped like thunderclaps, and the strain of the day's walking ached through her feet in thick pulses. Her whole body complained, and that said nothing for the constant ache of her soul that flared with every tiny movement of her core. Broken as her soul was, cycling was like trying to breathe through a bleeding lung, and without cycling, she could barely refine enough orgone to keep her heart beating, let alone enough to keep her inhumanly dense body from collapsing on itself.

Now came the worst part. She leaned forward, pressing her hands on either side of the glowing glass blade. She closed her eyes as her braids fell loosely around her face, tickling the many scars that crossed her temples and cheeks. Alone in the desert, under the silver-blue light of the pearlmoon, Anele opened her stoneiris fully.

Her third eye washed away the night's shadows. Her skin disappeared in her natural sight, until her flesh was as clear as a light mist. For a moment, she watched the blood flow through her veins in ribbons of pale syrup, twisting around bones that shone like rods of white gold in the moonlight. Opening her natural eyes cost nothing, but with a damaged soul, even cracking open her stoneiris was like tearing a red wound.

She saw the logs of wood buried in the earth, dark with decades of absorbed Earth aura. They were only the twisted, termite-eaten remnants of a tree that had long died in the desert, but each fibre of wood held a slip of earthy power. Anele put one finger on the hilt of her dagger and painfully flexed her soul.

The knock-on effect pushed the worm's trapped soul out the tip of the blade, through the sand, into the dry wood. A fire ignited under the earth.

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