Previously on Seven Stones: Haelen twists his ankle, leaving him unable to continue into the swamp. Pressing on alone, Anessa finds Falcon tied to a tree and follows him towards Kobb’s body. Falcon is attacked and collapses. Unable to locate the Korha, Anessa is overcome by lethargy.
Anessa screamed in pain as something hit her stomach. Struggling to draw breath, she noticed her crossbow next to her, no longer loaded and with one arm embedded in the mud. It must have gone off when it hit the ground, kicking the butt into her stomach. She stifled a yawn. Dropping her crossbow in the mud. Haelen was right about her needing—
No. Sleep was the enemy. Grabbing the crossbow, she backed away. Torn between keeping moving to stay awake and having to rely on her knife to protect herself, she risked a brief stop to wipe away the worst of the mud from her crossbow.
Something splashed behind her.
She spun around. For a moment she thought she saw something move, but then it was lost in the fog. Fumbling a bolt into place, she crept closer.
The mist swirled again revealing a thin shadow. Almost releasing without thought, she realised it was only a withered sapling. Neck aching from trying to look in every direction at once, and new abuse reminding her stomach of old insults, it took her long moments to realise the urge to sleep had faded.
Crouching, she looked back. Tendrils of fog slid across Falcon. Or something that looked like fog. Ignoring the dull aches, she took aim and loosed a bolt.
The mist twisted where it had passed, but she couldn’t be sure whether the remaining tendrils were only a trick of vapour or even be sure some of them had not been. The tiredness was surely a sign the Korha was nearby, but—unless the fog cleared—she would be firing blind. Or she could get closer. Close enough to be affected by its venom.
Falcon had fallen asleep before he hit the ground, but she had only begun to doze. She thought she’d seen a tentacle hit him. What if the venom was so strong that breathing the air it had passed through was enough to feel some effect? She slung her crossbow and unlaced her coat. Her singlet was the only vaguely clean clothing she had left. At least that would change through choice. Ripping a wide strip from the hem, she pushed it deep into the muck.
The brackish water darkened as clots of black matter rose to the surface. Anessa gagged as the damp air took on a stench that made Duffin’s jakes seem fragrant. Before she could lose her nerve, she dragged the strip out and tied it around her face.
Loading her crossbow, she trudged towards Falcon. Between, hopefully, less of the venom getting through and the foulness making her not want to breathe anyway, she should be safe unless a tentacle touched her. Peering into the murk, she thought she could make out several whirls of mist that were both thicker and less random than others. She crept closer.
The fog shifted but the tentacles didn’t, making her more certain they were not just a trick of her mind. Roughly where the centre of the tentacles would be, she made out a darker patch. She wanted desperately to loose now, but knew she might only have one chance. Lungs aching, she inched closer.
The air remained still, but the mist parted, revealing Kobb slumped in the water. A dark sphere, easily two feet across, with a horizontal line across the middle, loomed over him. Mud and rotten leaves clogged her mouth as she realised it was an eye.
Fighting down nausea, she raised her crossbow. Even battered and half-choked, her aim was true. The bolt smashed into the centre of the eye, filling the air with black ichor.
Anessa tumbled backwards as barbed tentacles lashed out of the mist. Plastered with muck— but crossbow in hand—she rolled frantically away. Long moments later the flailing assault slowed and then stopped.
Wiping filth from her eyes, she watched the Korha for the slightest movement. Tentacles almost the colour of mist hung around a torso containing the remains of a single huge eye. The fog drifted back, obscuring the cloud of ichor. Something didn’t feel right. If the mist hid the body, why were the tentacles still so easy to see?
The fog shifted again. The patch of blackness grew ever smaller.
Barbed tentacles flickered out.
Not noticing the swamp claiming her right boot, she stumbled away. Something caught her foot, sending her face first into the muck.
She couldn’t breathe.
Tearing the rag from her face, she rolled over. But the fog was even thicker at the swamp’s surface and only grey met her eyes. She was still awake, so maybe she was safe for the moment. She eased herself up.
Vague shadows came and went in the mist but nothing struck at her. She must have tripped. The Korha had lost her.
Her crossbow was gone. She felt around, but discovered only mud. Not that having a weapon would save her if the creature found her.
Why had it lost her in the fog? This was its home. If Haelen was right, it might even have brought this murk with it.
What if it was more than at home in fog? The eye had drifted back together. How could she fight fog?
Unless she wanted to leave Kobb, and the surviving villagers, to the creature, she had to try something.
Fog went faster on hot days. Dad even called it burning away. Fire might damage it.
Black gunk oozed between her fingers as she patted her pockets. Her flint hadn’t been lost when she fled, but she had nothing that was dry enough to burn, let alone set a creature that large alight.
But Kobb might. She crept through the mist to Falcon. Mud caked the outside of Kobb’s saddlebag, but it hadn’t received a dunking. The contents might be dry. She yawned. Why had he tied it so tightly? She just couldn’t get a grip. If only—
Gritting her teeth, she poked herself in the stomach. She might just be tired, but she couldn’t take the risk. The knot finally yielded, revealing neatly folded clothes, a book, and a small iron box. Rumour had it the faithful had some strange rules, but she doubted anyone would die from the lack of a shirt. That would be terrible, or funny, rescuing him and then it turning out the book wasn’t—
She slapped herself. Don’t drift off. Peering into the mist, she located a shadow that seemed too solid to be a threat and slogged towards it. After longer than it should have taken, she reached the twisted remains of a tree. Her knife skipped and scraped the bark instead of cutting cleanly, but she managed to remove a branch.
The makeshift torch caught on the third attempt. A weight she hadn’t realised she bore lifted. Defying reason, the air seemed clearer around the smouldering cloth. She raised the torch high and advanced into the mist.
Eyes no longer heavy, she saw with horrid clarity the moment mist solidified into flesh. Her legs turned weak, as pallid muscle, studded with jagged shards of mould-covered bone, rose up and smashed down.