Chapter 50

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Anele rolled a kink out of her neck. The pop was like a boulder breaking underground, but Earthwitches were durable, not invincible. The Cloudriver clansman slipped his hands into the pockets of his outer robes, and tempered his grin to a patient smile.

"Let me guess," Anele said, "Pettygod."

"More or less."

"Haven't seen the Paramount yet, so this your rain?"

"Again, more or less. Figured I had to make an entrance to keep the plebians away."

"Bold move for a Perfect."

He shrugged. "Big mouth for an Earthwitch. Shouldn't you be bowing?"

A knot tightened between Anele's shoulders, and the blood warming her face met a glare of cold regard. When she clenched her jaw, the soul clay between her feet hardened to diamond.

"Let me guess," the clansman said, imitating her scowl. "You want me to bow, make me."

"Just wondering if I want to walk all the way over there to kill you, friend."

He laughed again. There was a bit of the Airmage's playfulness about him, but it ended in his bitter chuckle and the lazy way he stared down at her from thirty paces away. His posture had a tightness about it, his feet set in perfect balance, his soul a knot of power waiting to slip loose.

"Don't bother," he said. 

He blurred. That was it, just a shift of his weight and he became a sandy red blur blitzing towards her, and just as quickly he stopped, just within arms reach, his hands still in his pocket. This close, the head and a half he had on Anele showed, and looking down his nose at her became a practicality rather than a gesture. The smile in his eyes was lazy.

"I like this one, cousin. She has the spirit of someone who'll die loudly."

"Zula," the Airmage said. "Stop."

"Oh, but I'm having so much--"

Anele's fist found the bottom of his ribcage. She put all her weight into the blow, lifting him an inch off the ground with a connection that was closer to a boulder hitting the ground from a great height. He staggered backwards, hands still in his pockets as he bent over his gut. Anele knew the stagger of someone playacting, even before he lifted his head to reveal that easy grin.

"You don't foreshadow your strikes," he said, straightening as if nothing had happened, "I'll give you that much. Your form and power, though... would your master be proud of that?"

"She'd have eaten you already."

"Well, you must be the burning brand of disappointment to her right now, then. Tell you what, I'll give you one more chance to atone."

"Cousin," the Airmage said again. "Your quarrel isn't with--"

Zula raised a hand but kept his eyes on Anele. "You get one more clean hit."

A slender hand touched Anele's shoulder when she took a step forward, then the Airmage was suddenly in front of her, arm across Anele's chest as she faced down her cousin.

"Your conduct is disgraceful, Zula."

"Yes, I took a suckerpunch. How shameful."

"Mind yourself, friend." Anele guided the Airmage's arm out of the way, to surprisingly little resistance. She sighed and stepped aside, so Anele was free to meet Zula's gaze. "Do me a favour, lift your chin."

"Like so?"

"Just so."

Anele flexed her soul. Zula was buried to his chest in soul clay even before she shot towards him in a powerful burst. The earth had swallowed him to his neck by the time she burned her spares of orgone on the final dash. His smile only twitched the moment before Anele put her foot through his stoneiris. His head whipped back as Anele heard something crack in her heel. 

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