Anele's feet sunk a little into the muddy street as rain crept through her hairline to run over her face. The whole street was so soft the rain riddled it with countless holes that melted into each other only to open again. Slippery, shimmering in the weak coppery sunlight that passed through a break in the clouds.
Fifteen paces ahead on that street, the Airmage and her Cloudriver cousin stood frozen, staring fifteen more paces down the road at the Pettygod. Rivulets of rain streamed down his iron chest, over the ridge of the scar that ran across his hard stomach like a crooked belt and bare thighs shaped for a warrior carved in profile.
The good news was he hadn't moved since landing on the street. The bad news... well, he was a Pettygod, wasn't he. Anele didn't know about him, but if someone gave her a fair fist in a streetfight, she'd hold a grudge, so the longer he didn't look at her, the better.
Speaking of grudge.
Both the Airmage and Zula twisted to look at her, wisely still half-facing the Pettygod.
"Word is we've a few minutes before someone from Deserteye closes this hole of a day," she said to the Airmage. "I promised you a chance to have a look at the Pettygod, didn't I?"
"Yeah see, when I was crouched over him the first time, he was dead," the Airmage said, eyes bright between their rain-soaked wraps.
Anele folded her arms. "Didn't I?"
"I... Hmm." The Airmage straightened, faced her flush, arms folded. "Loopholes aren't fun, you know."
Anele could make out a profile of her face now, sharp jaw and slender neck, a hint of a straight nose. But there was a little more to it than that. Since her cycling session with Salleh, new details pulled at Anele's senses now. Even at close range on the roof, she hadn't noticed the sparse freckles at the top of the Airmage's cheeks, or the fine hairs on the inside of her brows. Now, she saw all that from fifteen paces away, and the shadows around her wrap conspired to add features to her still hidden face.
"They're not, no." Anele blinked away the distraction. "If he kills you, he kills you. I offered you an uninterrupted audience."
"Shut up, both of you," Zula said. "What are you on about?"
Anele flexed her fingers, cracked her back. "You're the disruptive audience." She nodded to the Airmage. "Go get your end of the deal, your cousin and I have words to exchange."
"We have no words you ingr--"
"Okay." Anele rushed him.
She was too far away to make it count but he had pride enough for a village. That mouth shut the moment she took her first step, and with the explosive power of a Perfect, he covered twelve paces in the time it took her to cover three. His knee came flying at her, aimed at the rib he'd cracked in their last encounter. How cute, he remembered.
Anele checked the knee with an elbow tucked to her side, and twisted before Zula had fully flown past. He checked his stride with balance and speed that was barely human and drove a kick towards her nose. Anele turned it with an open palm and something cracked at the base of her thumb.
"You were holding back." He actually sounded bent out about it, gaze all bright light and crackling air. Bless him. "No Crude's that robust."
Anele popped her thumb back in its socket. She was still cycling the last of Salleh's gifted Kinetic aura, but now she split the technique between her ragged soul and her stoneiris, the former turning clockwise, the latter counter. Cycling with the soul came like second nature, however attenuated her soul had grown, but engaging both organs split Anele's focus three ways just to keep the technique running. But now her body did more than turn aura to orgone. It distilled it, strengthened the potency, producing orgone that was closer to syrup than water.
"So you're a Refined now," Zula said, straightening.
Anele tried to ignore the tremor that ran down her hand. "Not yet." She tapped her brow. "My old mentor had a thing about insights. Said you didn't know yourself..."
...until the world presses up and the sky falls down, and you find yourself crushed between the greatest pressures and peel out of your weakness, polished in soul and insight.
Anele pushed her locs back. "Well, she said fighting's good for the soul."
"I'll kill you," Zula hissed.
"Or maybe you won't."
"Uh, friend," the Airmage said. "Not to point out the obvious, but Zula almost... you know, last time."
Anele didn't dare turn her back on the Cloudriver mage. "Why are you still here?"
The Airmage sighed, and with a gust of wind, Anele felt her grow further away.
Zula settled into a four-point striking stance. Anele wasn't proud of the amount of elephant dung she was talking, and the man clearly wasn't fresh after his bout with the Airmage. But he was Perfect and Anele was... not Refined.
A shudder ran through her at the thought. She wouldn't meet a tougher opponent than Zula in the whole town, save for the Pettygod, and that was a no-go zone right now. The Airmage might match Zula for power but he actually wanted to kill her. There were three ways this could go. She could die, or she could gain the insight needed to ascend, or she could... No. Another tremor up her other hand, a little stronger than the last one. She only had two options.
Anele raised one hand to defend herself and slipped the other one behind her back, letting the rain cool the bruise already warming on her elbow.
"I'm going to enjoy running through you," Zula said.
Anele shrugged. "Okay."