Previously on Seven Stones: Kobb identifies the source of the evil, but warns dismantling it improperly will cause more problems than leaving it alone. After killing the ordinary horses to prevent pursuit, two of the noble’s apparent retainers flee toward the exit from the valley. Haelen discovers notes written in handwriting he recognises.
“You recognise the writing?” Kobb stumbled forward half a step.
“From somewhere.” Haelen waved the papers vaguely. “Don’t think it was about horses, though.”
Kobb frowned. Didn’t seem likely someone would recognise handwriting with enough certainty to get excited yet not recall any details. So Haelen wanted to keep where secret from the Inductor. “If those notes are like the others, knowing anything at all would be a benefit. Speaking of which… Anserth, best ask your companions to bring the servants back.”
“Bringing them back means giving them access to their magic again.” Anserth nodded toward the oaken hut. “Isn’t it better if we focus on these papers Haelen’s found? See if we can help him remember. People who keep so many notes tend to write everything down.”
“Dark power makes people paranoid too. There’s no guarantee they haven’t left something out. So, I’d prefer not to rely on their records. Haelen and I will start while you fetch the prisoners.”
Anserth clicked her tongue in thought. “Makes sense. Should update the others anyway. I’ll ride Falcon, by your leave.”
“It would save time.” Kobb kept his face level. Hopefully, it wouldn’t save enough that she returned before Haelen had finished sharing the rest.
As soon as the Inductor left the compound, Kobb raised an eyebrow to Haelen. “Remembered aught else?”
“You’ll remember how we met?” Haelen slid down the fence until he crouched. “I was tracking the people who kidnapped Katrina. Well, it weren’t a case of following footprints. All I had was a few things they left, and some words a neighbour overheard in the distance that she didn’t think were ‘normal’. So I sought out a historian. Maybe I should have asked more questions….”
“Take your time.” Anessa crouched next to Haelen. “Kobb’s not running around screaming, so I reckon the evil won’t win for a while.”
“Thank you. But I need to tell it all so we can fix it. He recognised enough to suggest another scholar who might have help. That didn’t get me answers either; I did find out someone else’d been asking the same questions, though—only about a missing wife.” Haelen tipped his head toward Kobb. “Unfortunately, not every Reverend’s as forgiving of the difference between knowing and doing as Kobb, so this man had gone into hiding. But I kept searching, and finally received a letter from him. Wasn’t easy, or cheap, sending letters back and forth through less than honest routes, but it seemed we were getting closer to answers. I was heading to Alcston to check a rumour when… well.”
“So, you think he ended up here, not knowing what the real story was.” Kobb sighed. “Compromised a little in the hope of finding the answer he needed.”
“Might have done if his hand were all I recognised.” Haelen fanned the papers, revealing two different types of parchment and writing. “These are in code, but dated like letters. The ones with them look like replies, in the same handwriting as the notes we found at the Stones. And they go back for years.”
“You said he was hiding.” Anessa patted Haelen on the shoulder. “Maybe he sent the letters from somewhere else not knowing what was happening, and it’s the other man who used to be here.”
Haelen shook his head. “There’s a map in one of his early letters, dated before Katrina went missing. Doesn’t show everything we found, but it does show the Stones. If he knew and never mentioned it…”
“Then he’s neck deep.” Kobb held his hand out to Haelen. Whether or not the power still affected their feelings, sitting around wasn’t the answer. “I understand how this feels. But, you didn’t know. In a way, him being that convincing’s a good sign: if he knew enough to trick you, chances are he knows something about your daughter’s kidnapping. So, I say we search the rest of the compound while we’re waiting for the Inductor to bring him to us.”
Haelen grinned. It didn’t reach his eyes. “For a Botherer, you talk a lot of sense.”
The remaining buildings provided only beds, food, and more insight into the noble’s other interests than a decent person might wish. Hearing Falcon’s hoof-beats approaching, Kobb abandoned his search for hidden compartments, and strode toward the gate.
Anserth, jaw jutting like a chisel and unaccompanied, leapt from Falcon’s back the moment he stopped. “They shitting escaped. They rode up to Gerin bold as brass and told her we’d freed them and told them to head home for carts to carry the people who didn’t make it. They seemed so shitting ragged and inoffensive that Gerin gave them a wineskin for the journey.”
“And now they’re out of sight, we’ve little chance of catching up.” Kobb kicked the ground. “We’ll have to do this the hard way. Between us, we carry the gong up to the parapet, and see what effect it has on the beasts. Anessa, you’re the best with a crossbow.”
Anessa glanced at the oaken structure, then straightened her shoulders. “Ain’t it better to do something about that first? Rather than risk getting those creatures angry.”
“You’ll be fine.” Anserth wrapped an arm around Anessa. “If you’re worried you’ll freeze again, you load and I’ll fire.”
Anessa leaned against the Inductor. “Ain’t that. If the gong don’t let us kill them, the beasts might break through the inner gate. And we’d have no way to stop them nor escape neither. Undoing the evil could kill them all, or get rid of whatever’s making them mad.”
“That gate’s reinforced,” said Anserth. “Those horses won’t be getting in.”
Haelen frowned. “Except, when we arrived, one of those fake servants thought a beast had escaped. And if he thought it could…”
“Unless you’ve cracked the code while I was away, what else can we try?”
“Nets! They had nets. As well as the gong-shield.” Anessa pulled free of the embrace and strode into the stables. A moment later, she emerged, clutching a clinking sack. “This is yellowy metal too. Why’d they have it, if the shield was enough?”
“A good question.” Kobb looked back and forth between the hut and the net. “If the nets help control the horses, maybe they limit the power itself too. We cover the building; if it feels more settled, we might not need to decode the notes.”
Anserth quirked an eyebrow. “Still risky. But then, what isn’t? And the guards have left us those pikes to use as supporting posts.”
Foul scents seemed to boil from the walls as they pinned nets in place. And jagged shadows tugged at the corners of their eyes. But they pressed on.
As the last net settled over the roof, Kobb’s chest eased and the light brightened despite the oncoming twilight. He closed his eyes, and let the sensations trickle through him. The power was still there; it tasted… squarer, though. At least, that was the closest he could come to a description. Sinking deeper into the melange of feelings, he found multiple points that sounded like chains. He opened his eyes and grinned. “Feels different: calm enough I can sense where the power’s held in shape.”
“I’ll trust your judgement, Reverend.” Anserth pressed a fist to her chest. “I suggest the rest of us move before you try unravelling it though.”
“Good idea,” said Kobb. He watched the others walk away; Anessa staying close to Anserth and the Inductor seeming torn between maintaining letting her and keeping a little space. Something was developing there, at least on Anessa’s side. He should warn her before it went too far. If this worked, they’d leave the Anserth behind soon enough, though. And if it didn’t, they’d all have bigger problems. Setting his concerns aside, he focused on the shifting patterns of power surrounding the hut.
Darkness like cold velvet crushed him as the first chain slipped free.