Previously on Seven Stones: Following a map showing possible sites of evil, Kobb, Anessa, and Haelen travel further north. After days of good weather, a storm boils up. Feeling both energised and sickened, Kobb almost collapses as lightning strikes; lightning only he seems to see.
“Something’s off.” Kobb pinched his nose and let his breath slip out of his mouth. The churning in his stomach settled. A tingling on his skin he hadn’t realised was there had gone; as if a storm had broken. But the pewter clouds still pressed down on the road.
And no natural storm had ever brought him close to vomiting; cold and wet, yes, but never like emptying his guts.
His shoulders hunched. More unnerving than a storm racking his body were the effects passing as if they had never been. It didn’t make sense—and yet something felt familiar.
He closed his eyes. He almost had it. For a moment, he could feel rough palms resting on his temples; and smell the mix of sweat and leather from Gannon’s armour. Remember his body seeming to turn inside out as the raw power rebounded from his mentor’s will; and the way the turmoil was but memory the moment he truly saw the crystal in his hand.
Eyes snapping open, he drew his Courser. It looked inert, but the chill of the grip reached deep into his fingers.
“Which way?” asked Anessa.
Kobb realised she was pressed against a tree, jerking her crossbow to point at shadow after shadow. He holstered his Courser. “Not a threat. Least not here.”
Anessa stepped back onto the track, eyes still flicking around the tree line.
“Maybe we should make camp.” Haelen pulled his hood over his head. “Build a shelter before the rain comes.”
“They’re not rain clouds,” said Kobb. “That’s power. Old power. Right where the map marked it would be.”
“And that’s what made you…?” Anessa waved her hand in a loose circle.
“It’s like… an invisible river. Those as have the Blessing, feel the currents. There are artefacts, Courser and others, that shape it, like a dam. But, if the river floods, the dam isn’t enough.” Kobb straightened his shoulders and strode down the track. “Best hope that was all of it; that it’ll take time to build again. Sooner I get there, better the hope.”
“Sooner we get there.” Anessa moved past him.
As they moved on, the small rustlings and skitterings in the forest faded away. Shortly after, Anessa stopped at a bend in the track.
Kobb moved to join her. Tangled in each other, several trees hung across the path. Pacing slowly towards them, he realised the forest ended as if cut with a knife. Past the blockage the ground was churned, but scoured clean—apart from a ring of stones that Kobb was willing to bet stood at the exact middle of the devastation.
Anessa unslung her turf-hook. “We’ll not be short for firewood.”
Taking turns, they hacked away branches until Falcon could fit through. In contrast to clinging earth and leaf mould of the forest, dust shifted beneath their feet.
Kobb unsheathed his weapons. “One step at a time. And if I say run back, do it.”
Creeping forward, he strained his senses for the slightest feeling of nausea. Much closer and there wouldn’t be time to run back to the trees, but if he could send them back as soon as the power surged, he might be able to hold it long enough for them to escape the worst. A shadow flicked above him.
Drawing and aiming without thought, he barely stopped himself shooting a skein of geese. He holstered his Courser and walked on.
Anessa pointed to one side of the stones. “Are those tents?”
“Not just tents,” said Haelen. “Tents that are still standing. Maybe this was days ago and whatever you felt was—”
Noted only in its loss, the sound of wings was swallowed by silence. Twisted bundles of feathers rained from the sky ahead.
“I didn’t feel power.” Sheathing his rapier, Kobb picked up a rock and threw it ahead of him. A puff of dust rose up where it struck the ground. He paced over to it. “Walk exactly behind me.”
Pitching the stone and then moving to it, he inched his way forward. A gentle breeze stirred his hair, strong enough to ripple both the bodies of the dead geese and the tents; but nothing else moved ahead and he felt no power building.
“Wait,” shouted Haelen. “Don’t Coursers only affect the living?”
Kobb froze with one foot raised. They did damage stone, but the effect was much weaker. Lowering his boot to the ground, he rolled his shoulders and hurled the rock as hard as he could.
It arced through the air, struck the ground near one of the geese, and bounced past.
Anessa stared at him, face pale. “Could the curse have gone?”
“Only one way to be sure.” Kobb walked a few steps closer and spat.
The wind caught the spittle, bending it away. With a sizzle it disappeared.
“Not gone.” Kobb considered. Bearing crystal didn’t protect against a Courser, but the Blessing of Form would let a mentor confine raw power within an apprentice, briefly. Could he shape this?
Pressing the fingers of his free hand to his pendant, he raised his Courser and stepped forward.
Despite the lowering storm, the crystal sparkled as if in sunlight. A low hum clasped the base of his skull.
And stepped forward.
Frost grew on the stock, biting at his hand. A dull ache filled his joints.
And stepped forward.
A sharp smell flooded his nostrils and he tasted copper.
Purple sparks crackled along the Courser before flickering away. Sticking to the air for a moment before fading, they painted a faint wall of light an arm’s length ahead.
Kobb instinctively dropped back and into a crouch.
The glow disappeared. A man, mostly obscured by a tattered robe and waving a trowel, ran towards him from the direction of the tents.
“We ain’t thieves,” shouted Anessa from behind him. “You take that back.”
Keeping the Courser pointed down—but not holstering it—Kobb rose to his feet. He raised his free hand, palm out. “As my friend says, we do not seek to steal from you.”
The man stumbled to a halt and pushed back the hood of his robe, revealing sunken green eyes peering from between bushy grey eyebrows and a ragged beard. “You’re too tall for Skithai. But you could be common bandits. Why else would you be here, eh?”
Kobb balanced the risks. This man could well be the mysterious alchemist from Alcston, but was he here to stop the threat or…? “We heard of a threat to the north. A map led us here.”
“Map, eh?” The man scratched his beard. “Well, don’t mean you aren’t thieves just because you can read a map. But your friend didn’t try a shot, which means you aren’t stupid. And a person of your skills has better options than banditry. Do me a task, and I’ll risk letting you in.”
Kobb settled his Courser in place. “If it’s honourable.”
“Honour’s exactly what it is. I cut a deal with a Skithai, but he turned on me. Did something to the stones and set his tribe on me. I managed to raise the power and drive them off. Could work out how to undo what he did, but it would be faster if I could get him to tell me. If I go after him then I have to let it fade again. But you could bring him to me.”
“You’ll give us a moment?” Kobb turned and strolled back to his companions. He signalled them to lean close, and kept his voice low. “We aren’t getting through that barrier without him.”
“If he’s evil, then anyone who worked with him is too,” said Anessa.
Haelen frowned and then nodded.
Kobb walked neared to the barrier. “We’ll do it.”
The man pointed at Kobb’s pendant. “Promise me.”
Kobb clutched the pendant. “I promise we’ll bring the Skithai back here.”
“Good enough. Off with you then.”
“A minor point.” Kobb raised an eyebrow. “We have no idea what Skithai look like.”
“Skithai. Short, ugly.” The man scratched his head. “Some folk call them Eaters. You’ll recognise this one by his mask: got a pair of golden antlers on it.”