Chapter 9

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Anele stared at the dead mandrill, and the pale light leaking out of its belly. She dropped to a knee, bracing a fist against the dark clay earth to steady herself. A deep gash had opened her shoulder, and the wind flared the venom in it like a breath to embers. The mandrill's meat would be no good then. Even in death, its claws glistened an odd green tint in the sunlight, and the tongue that lolled out of its long snout was coloured the same. Anele would sooner drink saltwater than test that meat out.

But...

Panting, she opened her stoneiris a little wider, and the light in the mandrill's belly brightened.

"Hunter shall eat no equal hunter," Anele said to the glowing corpse. "Friend told me that." 

Her body refused to rise but she dragged it upright anyway. The horizon rolled its shoulder and she staggered a step to the side before regaining her balance. Her left eye was almost swollen shut, and a gash in her brow was pouring blood into the other one. The wind ruffled her feather skirt. 

"Friend used to eat elephants in one gulp, though. You'd have been a treat on their way to better food. Us? It was four on one at some point. I don't know if that makes you better or lesser, but we're not equals and I'm starving, friend." 

Her dagger lay forgotten beside her foot. Anele flicked it up with a toe and reached out. Exhausted, she fumbled it and it fell to the ground again. To hell with that, then. She scooped up a fist of soul clay and packed it over her heart hand. 

"Besides, we had a deal."

Shutting her stoneiris, Anele dropped down by the mandrill's hip and shoved her heart hand into its belly. She grabbed its slippery soul and crushed it. It was like holding a piece of wilderness, kneaded and knotted up until it was small enough to fit under a liver. Small but packed with life and sharp scents. The moss of a distant jungle. The strangeness of the dry desert air. Fear when there was iron on the wind...

She'd been wondering what would have forced a troop of mandrills out of the jungles that bordered the desert, and now she knew.

"I suppose you were better off running into me than him."

Her own soul might have carried a sniff of the Pettygod's iron stench if the fight had fallen the other way. In fact, come to think of it...

Anele looked up at a distant dune. Nothing. It was just sand, rolling over like slow waves. She cracked her stoneiris open and there he was, staring at her with a face that bore no eyes or mouth.

She'd have to leave the mandrill's soul. It was larger and more vital than the earthpig's had been -- stay and feast on that. That would be the only way to escape him. Give up the kill and live another day. But he'd followed her effortlessly, and he was a Pettygod. It wasn't like she could outrun--

He dashed forward. It took five strides, that was all. He'd been at least a hundred paces away and then a couple of heartbeats happened and here he was, standing over her, the iron scent of his body like a cold weight in the air. After half a heartbeat, the sand in his wake exploded as the air rushed to fill the space he had just dashed through. Airweaving, a  speed technique worthy of a Pettygod-level mage.

 The sun was behind his head, casting his featureless face in shadow, but Anele felt his hunger ripple against her.

No, there would be no outrunning him.

The Pettygod knelt on the other side of the mandrill. Anele reflexively abandoned the soul, pulling back her hearthand as the Pettygod slide metal fingers into the gash. He ripped the soul and liver out with a gentle tug, and raised them to the ridge of iron where his mouth should be. 

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