Chapter 67

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The question rung inside Anele as the Pettygod pressed her back with strikes that blurred only after they landed. His strikes were quick but lighter than before -- every moment of contact put a char on his knuckles and shins and feet, and his holding back was the only thing that kept her in it. And still that question rattled her bones more than any iron fist.

What did it mean to be Earthwitch? 

Sister Henna had taught her that it was to always keep a connection with the ground. An Earthwitch's power lay in their ability to root themselves like mountains, to throw strikes with the force of falling towers, to hold ground and take it, but never give. An Earthwitch with heels to soil wasn't a warrior, they were a monument.

Older Sister had agreed with this, only in so far as hardness was practical. The Pettygod's speed had no equal here, but what Anele could not turn away, she could endure. Barely. In the year she had spent in Older Sister's shadow, she had learned that there was more to her Path than Earth aura. There was the will of stone, the refusal to bend before one broke. To dig into ones heart and carve out the weakness there, fill it with something more useful. And that final insight, more elusive than all others -- an insight that had taken her into the heart of the world.

The Pettygod's elbow bounced off Anele's brow, stunning her stoneiris. She stumbled backwards, not quick enough to slip the heel that connected with her mouth. Spitting blood, Anele held up her guard and tucked her chin until the colourful blurs danced off the edges of her vision. Sucking wind, she checked a leg kick and hobbled another step out of reach. The Pettygod grinned like a child throughout.

"Behind you!" the Airmage yelled.

Anele had just enough sense to step over a crooked iron bar that she would have almost certainly tripped over as the Pettygod advanced. She sensed a soul flex behind her, and a tight gust of wind shot over her shoulder, like a cylinder of solid air. It knocked into the Pettygod's shoulder and bought Anele the heartbeat she needed to stomp down on his knee. 

Sweat poured down her face, boiling hot against the cold rain. Her bones were on fire and her flesh felt like it would cook right off. There was the power of a Refined Earthwitch inside her now, but it was out of control, burning her as much as it did the Pettygod. She didn't fear it, because she knew enough about her Path to know that she shouldn't. There was something in there for her, if she could just reach past the pain to grab it. If she could just avoid the only thing keeping her from testing the full extent of her new soul.

The Pettygod flexed and she countered with a flex of her own. The ground between them cracked, boiled, then exploded. Salt, ash, and scorched earth pelted Anele's face as she searched around for the Pettygod.

"Gotcha!" the Airmage crashed into her with the force of weighted arrow, her kick landing flush on Anele's shoulder. 

That kick forced her a step to the left while the mage pushed off her in the other direction. The Pettygod landed between them with enough force to plant his leg shin deep in the blackened patch of earth. Anele braced herself for a follow up attack, and the Airmage must have been more concerned about her than herself because what he did next caught them both by surprise. He launched to the right instead of the left, iron fingers clamping around the Airmage's wrist before she could even think to move. With a wrestler's grace and speed, he had his arm coiled around her neck.

"Zula help!" she croaked as her feet left the ground.

Anele was a twitch away from sprinting forward before the Pettygod held up a hand, one finger upraised, wagging from side to side. When Anele clenched her jaw, the earth under her feet blackened and grew liquid hot.

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