Chapter 33

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Don't stop cycling, said Older Sister.

Anele hit the ground shoulder first, sliding on a tide of thick venom that slicked her along the grass until she crashed into what felt like stone. However fast Older Sister had been slinking along the mountain, she hadn't slowed down before flinging Anele out of her cavernous mouth, so when the young witch hit the crag in the mountain, she did so hard enough to rattle her skeleton.

She lay there a long moment, head heavy in the crook of her arm, breathing heavy as she fought to remain conscious enough to cycle through the pain. Even with her eyes squeezed shut, she sensed the pure blackness of a concussion seeping into the red-tinted darkness. How long had she held her breath for? Cycling without breathing could cause serious damage, only it poisoned the soul rather than the flesh, like a furnace trying to smelt iron without a bellows to flare its heat. That iron -- orgone -- would grow cold half-melted, tamping the coals and clogging the furnace irreparably. 

That had been part of Sister Hanna's lessons only last night, when Anele had been the youngest witch in her sect, a runt in truth, but safe among her coven-siblings. Now, she lay limp against a crag somewhere further down the mountainside, venom hissing as it rolled off her skin to burn the grass to soot.

Head still too heavy to lift, she dug her fingers into the softening soil. She and her siblings only ever needed their feet touching the earth to cycle its rich aura, but there was something about reaching into it with fingers and heart that always let them dig deeper. With a shuddering breath that scraped at a raw throat, Anele mined under the bedrock and strata for the Earth aura veined there, forged not just from soil and dead matter, but from pressure and heat and the weight of eons packed on eons.

In some places in the earth, it felt like pockets of gas compressed hard enough to burst flesh. Deeper down, the aura pooled thick as oil in a hard vein. And all around, there were nuggets of it as rigid and latticed as the diamonds and opals it formed. This was the purest Earth aura, so hard to break down Sister Hanna made them chew the cut up diamonds first when they practiced cycling it. It was no good without physical contact, not for a witch as weak as Anele. 

So Anele lifted her head slightly so that her stoneiris was above her soul and pulled from the topsoil. She pulled deep, like a child sinking their head in a stream to drink. Each breath flared her soul, breaking down the essence of the earth that swirled in a loose spiral beneath her liver. Each breath healed her. First, it cooled the hissing in her scalp and lashes from the venom that had sunk into the follicles there. 

Every witch learned to thread orgone between their cells. It required fine control, finer than Anele possessed, to cover the whole body, but she had managed enough in her two years here to partially thread her arms and face and torse, so the venom had only partially burned patches of skin there. But the venom wasn't as thick as the drops her siblings had endured, so even a runt like Anele could keep herself from burning to a crisp. The diluted venom slid off her skin like water off marble, and the next breath brought orgone-fuelled relief to the ugly red marks that seemed to sit deep in the of her forearms dark skin.

When she had healed enough to push herself shakily to a sitting position, the sun had gone from mid-morning to late afternoon. She sat panting with her back against the crag she had crashed into, legs splayed out in a pool of cool venom and dead grass. 

Older Sister was close enough to reach out and touch.

Anele flinched at the proximity to that giant mouth. The scales around her lips were like white stone hewn around a dark line, and Anele watched them for a long time before the back of her legs started to burn. Breathing again, she cycled to cool the pain and swallowed.

When Older Sister drew her massive head back, the setting sun burnished her horns a dull orange. Each one was bigger than an old tree, a dirty white against her pearly scales. Her giant eyes were opals reflecting the oily silver light of her stoneiris. It flared when she laughed.

We shall see, you said, when questioned on the limits of your strength. And yet you and I know that you are the meekest of the meek among your siblings. You are protected from the children of other sects by the likes of Qala; you are protected from your own siblings by their pity alone. They should kill you. Your loss strengthens them.

Anele wanted to tell herself that she was too weak to frown. In truth, she was too frightened. One was not swallowed by an Elephant Eater and stolen down the side of a mountain without realising how small they were. They were less than the pebbles scattered around them, because Older Sister would never bother hurting the pebbles.

That giant mouth no longer filling her vision, Anele realised the Grandmaster had wrapped herself three times around the crag, creating a wall of hard scales thirty feet high.

Don't look so frightened, arrogance is good, child. The earth is not a mass of dirt and grass, it is alive with a resolve of heavy molten iron and stubbornness the mages call gravity, crushing all around it to form a fist of quiet will. 

Anele said nothing, couldn't say anything. Her back was pressed to the crag was if someone was pushing her against it, and the tear that rolled down her cheek burned away on a patch of venom still clinging to the side of her mouth.

You are hungry, Older Sister said after a long moment.

Anele's nod was more just her head going limp for a moment.

You thirst, too?

More tears rolled down her cheeks as she nodded more vigorously. Older Sister's chuckle made her freeze, and she uttered a single word with that bodiless voice of hers in a way that put a physical weight on it. It sat on Anele's shoulders like a heavy blanket crawling with mites.

Why?

She sucked in a shaky breath. "Wh-Why?"

Why do you, an Earthwitch, hunger when there is soil beneath your feet, and when your Grandmaster has gorged her own essence for you to drink from?

"I--" Anele swallowed and tried to ease the tightness in her chest, but twin hands of panic crushed her lungs closed. "I am not an Earthwitch yet, Grandmaster."

Then become one.

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