Previously on Seven Stones: Kobb exhausts himself killing possessed horses. With the last of the beasts dead, Inductor Anserth orders her men to destroy the compound and move out without her. Haelen challenges her reasons. When Anessa leaps to Anserth’s defence, the Inductor claims her apparent friendship was just a ploy.
Kobb pinched the bridge of his nose in the hope of clearing the fog, if only for a moment. Would Anessa feel better or worse if he tried to comfort her? Running boots and sobbing told him the decision had been made for him. A breath later, Haelen sprinted after her.
Guilt mixed with relief, Kobb looked down at Anserth. Driving Anessa away meant losing the only person who’d have let her join them without a thought; and an Inductor wouldn’t throw an asset like that away. Someone who didn’t want Anessa to just be an asset, though… Driving her away was the most efficient course. “If you come, you’ll do what Haelen tells you when it comes to health. And what I say for everything else.”
Anserth grinned. “To be honest, I expected you to claim you didn’t need another soldier; or claim you’d more people back at your camp.”
“I considered it. Then you put Anessa’s happiness above convincing us.”
“Will you tell her?” For a moment, the Inductor’s expression seemed utterly genuine.
“That you like her? Or that if one of those guards had turned around as you dragged her past, you’d have let him use her and waited for a more suitable opportunity? As Haelen says, it’s your explanation to give or not.”
“I’d thank you. But then, that wasn’t actually a promise.” A shutter seemed to close behind her eyes. “How soon will we be ready to travel? As poetic as it might be, brooding next to the burnt wreckage won’t achieve our goals or make anyone feel better.”
“I am, as you stated, not as young as I was. I’ll need time to recover from overusing my Courser.”
Anserth pointed at the pile of her clothes Haelen removed during treatment. “Middle pouch on the left side of my belt. Each twist of paper contains enough waking powder to keep me sharp through a night of sitting in a snowdrift. Should be enough to keep you on a horse for a few hours.”
His tiredness came from more than physical exertion. Would a stimulant have any effect? At worst, he’d be wider awake to use his wits or his rapier if needed. And not trying it risked arousing suspicions while the Inductor could still order her men to detain them. He emptied a twist onto his tongue.
The taste of rotten lemons flooded his mouth. Chills raced along his limbs, followed by the feeling his skin was too tight. Everything around him blazed like staring at the sun. A breath later, everything returned to normal, leaving only a sense of well-being.
And the taste of rotten lemons. He spat to the side.
“Apologies for the flavour.” Anserth tipped the contents of a second twist down her own throat, then grimaced. “Usually passes after a while.”
After spitting again to no effect, Kobb turned his attention inward. The void left by the discharged power tugged at him, more roughly than previous times yet not agonisingly so. He’d likely be exhausted afterwards, but travel felt possible. Two sets of boot-steps, one almost stomping, broke his concentration.
“You’re looking a little sick, Inductor.” The red of Anessa’s eyes spoke of tears. Her gaze was hard, though. “Just realised you forgot to kick a—?”
Kobb wrapped his thoughts around the five of them and fell upward.
Agony clawed at his temples as he sagged to his knees. Clutching his brow, he barely confirmed they were back at the Stones before another wave of pain blurred his vision. Rotten lemons flooded his mouth even stronger than before. Teeth gritted, he rose to his feet.
Anessa stared at him, anger forgotten. “Kobb, are you—”
Cramps racking her body, Anserth vomited copiously. After gazing into the distance for a moment, she collapsed onto her back.
“Haelen! What’s wrong with—” Anessa paused, then stepped back. “I hope you feel terrible, you… Eastsider!” Ultimate insult delivered, she turned to face Kobb. “What’s that hag doing here? Why didn’t you leave her—?”
Kobb half-raised one arm. “Calm down, Anessa.”
“Don’t you tell me to calm down! You brought—”
“Stones make us angry.” Kobb hawked foul mucus onto the grass. “Don’t want to you to fight like I did with Haelen.”
After a moment, Anessa’s back lost its rigidity. “You’re right. If I kill that bitch then she’ll stop feeling really, really bad.” Spinning on one heel, she stomped off toward the tents.
Haelen rested a hand on Kobb’s elbow. “I’ll admit I’m curious too, Reverend.”
“Turns out she has a strong interest in protecting Anessa. So, she’ll help us until this is done.”
Haelen snorted. “Or kidnap Anessa and drag her to safety.”
“What…? Where…?” Anserth struggled up onto one elbow. “How’d we get here?”
“My turn to apologise, Inductor. I didn’t know the powder would increase—”
“Stimulant!” Haelen dropped into a crouch next to Anserth. “You gave her a stimulant? Look at me, Inductor. Are your ears ringing? Hissing? Do your limbs feel light?”
“Be fine. Not first time I’ve—” Anserth collapsed sideways, strings of murky spittle oozing out of her mouth
Haelen eased her up again. “Bed for you. And you, Reverend!”
Kobb bowed his head and walked to sleeping tent. Still unsure which response was best, he pretended not to hear the sobs coming from beneath Anessa’s furs.
Dawn brought neither the taste of rotten lemons nor the scent of oats. After glancing at the lump of bedding on the far side of the tent, Kobb decided it was as good a start as could be expected. Stretching the knots of hard age out for another day, he headed out to make breakfast.
Anserth emerged as the porridge began to bubble, a frustrated Haelen on her heels. “Morning, Reverend. Medicus Lok seems to have mistaken me for a raw recruit.”
Kobb sighed. “You did agree to obey him on matters of health.”
“You said that’s what I should do. I never promised.”
Kobb shook his head ruefully. “If she can weave words like that, I’d say she’s fit to walk from a tent to the fire.”
“She’s not…” Haelen dropped onto a log. “Fine. But you’re not allowed to complain if all your skin falls off.”
The inductor paused, one hand halfway toward the pot of porridge. “Was that supposed to be a joke?”
“That was. This isn’t. Reverend, I reckon might be best to stop what we’re doing. Evil men wanted me to start this search, so continuing doesn’t seem a good thing.”