Previously on Seven Stones: The Eater Kobb promised to bring back flees the clearing. Kobb and Falcon push on, while the others follow at a slower pace. Exhausted from days of chasing and the return of his nightmares, Kobb finally spots a glint in the undergrowth and hears snoring.
Kobb peered between the trees. The knee-high undergrowth had grown upwards into a tangled wall of brambles and branches almost his height. It looked impenetrable, but was also the source of the snoring. There must be a way through. Gritting his teeth, he shifted his weight from the trunk next to him.
His legs bowed beneath him, but he forced his knees straight before his sway became uncontrollable. One pace at a time, he crept towards the snores. Springy tendrils hooked at his ankles and each step slipped on rotting matter, adding to the foul tang in the air. If he could—
The snoring stopped.
Kobb froze. Hot icicles slashed his right leg as it held most of his weight. Something rustled ahead.
On the edge of falling, Kobb eased his left hand to his rapier and slid it free.
Scrabbling came from further to the left. Each blink feeling like rubbing dirt in his eyes, Kobb squinted into the brambles. The Eater had led him far from the clearing. Now it would turn like a beast at bay. Where would the attack come from?
His head snapped back as a brief scuffing came from where he had originally looked. The snoring resumed.
Biting down as hot lightning speared out from his knee, Kobb moved the rest of his weight from his left foot and slid it off the broken twig. If he could hear snores, the noise hadn’t been the Eater. Or it was pretending to sleep; waiting for him to be distracted. Hoping he was blessed, Kobb focused on the ground directly ahead, testing each footing by eye and toe.
He reached the thicket without incident. Unwilling to take the chance he was wrong about an attack, he kept his rapier up as he sank to his haunches. His legs aching still more from his stilted advance, he rested but a moment in a squat, before bracing his right arm behind him and half-collapsing into a seated position.
The snores continued. He let out a slow breath. Leaning the growing burden of his torso onto his raised legs, he peered at the brambles. Closer now to the ground, he made out scuffs and bent sprouts where small animals had slipped under; and one tangle hanging over empty space. Falling sideways as quietly as he could, he stared in.
The gap continued deeper into the wall of vegetation. A way in. Low and narrow, but a way in. Even better, a crystal glinted deeper in: an Eater staff. Keeping the rapier ahead of him, he pushed the brambles aside as best he could and dragged himself into the gap. The scent of rot faded, replaced with a subtle earthy smell. Now he was in it, he realised the tunnel was perfectly straight and the same size all the way. Tendrils that sprouted inward each curved back into the sides and roof. It was too regular to have grown.
Cursing the need to not use his Courser, and uncertain if he even could, Kobb wriggled forward. The tunnel opened out into a light-flecked bower. A single Eater, mask of polished wood with short golden antlers, gazed back at him.
The snoring continued. After a moment, Kobb decided the feeling of being watched was only the shadows in the mask; but there was no room for complacency. He reached for the end of the staff, and paused. The Eater had rested its bag on the staff. Even at his best, Kobb would have had difficulty getting the staff out without the bag falling.
Inching forward slightly, he slid his rapier into its sheath. Apologising to his shoulders for what he was about to do, he stretched his right arm towards the bag. A burning sensation twisted in his lower back, and his upper arms felt like they were tearing through his back.
But his fingertips curled over the shoulder sling. He curled them into his palm, and then drew his forearm up. The bag jerked closer.
The snoring continued.
His lower back wobbled. Arms still, he stretched first his left then his right leg back and out. As soon as his right leg was straight, he lowered his chest to the soil. His neck immediately ached from tilting his head, but he felt stable. He drew his right arm closer again.
The bag slid and bounced closer. An inch away from his face, it gaped open. A mask slid free.
Ignoring the sensation of a jagged spike driving into his shoulder, Kobb twisted and caught it with his free hand before it struck the staff. He lowered himself back to prone and swallowed the pain, before exhaling through his mouth. Could he get it back into the bag?
The snoring had stopped.
Tilting his head back, he stared across the bower into a pair of bright purple eyes. The Eater’s hand already rested on the end of its staff.
Certain he couldn’t reach it in time, Kobb arched his back and grabbed for his rapier.
“Don’t, Anh-kru. Please.” The Eater pointed at the mask in Kobb’s hand.
It wasn’t attacking. The Eaters took the masks from the dead. They must be important. Too important to risk damage. Keeping a firm grip on the mask, Kobb settled into a less uncomfortable slump. “Hands off the staff.”
The Eater drew its hand back, and then raised both palms out. “No fight needed. No harm. Masks must be taken home, or torag-kru… evil happens.”
“You’re coming with me.” Kobb waved the mask. “Any tricks and…”
“We deal. No harm. No tricks.”
“Stay here until I call.” Grabbing the end of the staff with his free hand, Kobb wrestled it past him. The Eater watched, unblinking. One-handed, each movement sent a new flicker of agony through part of his body, but Kobb dare not let go of the mask. Eventually, the staff rested alongside him. Wriggling back, and then dragging the staff alongside, he inched his way out.
As soon as he was free of the tunnel, Kobb struggled to his feet. Feeling an odd sense of guilt, he braced his weight on the staff and shuffled several feet away. “Come. Slowly.”
Moments later the Eater emerged, clutching its bag. “Where do we go?”
“Back to the stone circle.”
The Eater seemed to sag. Shaking its head slowly, it indicated its bag. “Long way back. With tiredness on you, will be many days. I have way to ease burden.”
“You think I would trust you?”
The Eater became rigid. “Torag-kru! Only lost one would poison blessing of wakefulness.”
Blessing? It was right that offering false help was evil, but wasn’t Kobb the first to follow the Way this far north. “All certitude is as the mist at dawn—”
“—cloaking stone of truth forged.”
That hides the rock of the Maker’s truth. The words weren’t the same, but the meaning was. “You know the Way of the Maker Guiding? But how? Which Reverend showed you the path?”
The Eater made a rattling noise. After a moment, Kobb realised it was chuckling. “No. I am not convert to your faith. You are Urt-Skithai.”