Previously on Seven Stones: Anessa sneaks over the rubble surrounding Karak’s tower. While circling the base, she discovers two robed bodies. When she investigates further, she realises one of them was brought down by a crossbow before they were killed.
Anessa slipped back behind the wall. Why’d Karak use a crossbow rather than the beasts? And why kill a fleeing man? Didn’t he try to drive everyone away…? She sighed. The answers wouldn’t help. She needed to find a way in; one that Karak wasn’t watching.
If he guarded anywhere, it’d be the door. She hadn’t seen windows on the ground floor. If there were some on the other side, they’d be the next most obvious entry; so too risky. The next storey might be safe though; he couldn’t watch everywhere on his own. She reached above her head and felt for holds between the stones.
The blocks were mortared. However, as she’d hoped, it’d crumbled in places, leaving shallow but useable joins. She squeezed the side of her left boot into the wall and eased herself up. The ache in her shoulders blossomed as she pressed her other foot against a crack.
Foot seated—barely—she slipped her right hand free and stretched up. The pain in her left shoulder spread to her elbow. Teeth gritted, she hooked her fingertips into another seam. For a moment, she thought she’d done it; then her ears began to sing. Waves of tightness surging through her head, she dropped down before she fell.
She stared up the wall. Rested, she’d clamber up and still been able to run. But creeping over fallen rubble all day pushed her well past the point where she’d head for home after a day’s hunting. The way in had to be obvious, but she didn’t know anything about Universities or wars. If Kobb was here, he’d—
Hunting. Anserth said she sent her best fighters. They’d have tried sneaking around. But they’d failed; because not been noticed was only part of hunting. To get close, you also needed to work out what your quarry’d do. Karak hadn’t done this to live alone in a ruin; he wanted to do something in there. So he wouldn’t lurk on the ground floor; he’d spend his time doing that. He might even think the creatures protected him, and not keep watch. She stretched a few times to work out the worst of the fatigue and sneaked back to the door.
The handle resisted, the edges digging into her palm as it juddered down. A dull graunch came from the lock. She paused. The keyhole looked bigger than most; big enough for a small crossbow bolt. She stepped to the side and lifted her hand away. Another part of hunting was traps.
Chest pressed against the wall, she reached sideways and twisted the handle. It moved partway and stopped. She bore down as hard as possible. The ache completed its journey along her arm, but the handle moved.
Then stuck with a final jolt.
She peeled her fingers free and considered it. The handle wasn’t quite vertical; it was close enough, though. Almost certain the stiffness was disuse rather than a trap, she shoved the door. If it shifted at all, she didn’t feel it. Whether the door was bolted or just jammed by age, she didn’t have the strength left to open it. Tiredness and frustration rounded her shoulders, but she continued her circuit. Maybe she’d find a vine. Or whoever built the tower liked having windows on just one side.
The last curve of wall was as sheer as the rest. And—while some of the nearby buildings had collapsed—the creatures’d taken any sections that’d fallen against the wall. She continued round. The closest she found to a way up was the arch where the dead woman lay. Climbing it’d gain her six feet, but there wasn’t a window above it so that wouldn’t help.
She slumped onto a fallen block. Why couldn’t Karak have made his lair in the next ruin over? Even if the wall wasn’t missing, getting on the roof’d be easy. Why did he need a whole tower? The roof of that one was big enough for the creatures to land, and he’d still have two whole storeys for his evil plans.
She shook her head. All the things he’d done, and she was annoyed about where he picked. He probably didn’t have a choice though. The tower was the only ruin she’d seen taller than two storeys. The original people probably built it because whatever Karak found needed to be high up. And even if he’d had a choice, he wouldn’t have picked her preferred ruin, as one of the tower’s window overlooked—
If there was space for a beast to land, there was space for her to run. Then jump to the window. She chuckled. Climb into plain sight with monsters lurking in the sky, run across a roof, then leap three yards. It was mad enough that Karak wouldn’t expect anyone to do it.
She clambered up before she changed her mind. At least the roof was free of debris, so she needn’t worry she’d trip. Her armour’d be a problem; the alternative was saving the world with no clothes on, though. The space looked long enough to get some speed. Thinking’d only give her more to worry about, and she wasn’t going to become less tired any time soon. She jogged to the far edge, faced the window, and ran.
The sound of her boots filled her ears.
For a moment, she floated.
Then weight yanked at her. She stretched her fingers for the tower. She wasn’t—
Breath spurted from her as the sill kicked her in the stomach.
Her fingertips cut furrows in the grime as she slid backwards, then caught on the broken edge of a floor tile. With a surge, she dragged herself in before she slipped again. Her body tried to curl, but she forced her chest open. Three gulps later, the pain dulled enough she could clamber to her feet.
Apart from shadows and cobwebs, the room was empty. An archway broke the opposite wall. Unslinging her crossbow, Anessa sneaked through and up the stairs beyond. As she passed the next floor, the gloom ahead gave way to flickering light. She slowed her pace further.
“You have to leave.” Anessa stilled as a man spoke. Why talk to the creatures like friends?
“Not until we know she’s safe.” The second voice was hoarse, but sounded like a woman not a monster.
“It’s too risky to call them for that. If you go tonight, you’ll see for yourself.”
Anessa crept up the steps, crossbow raised. Anserth hadn’t actually said Karak was alone; she hadn’t mentioned anyone else, though. Neither voice bubbled with arrogance like the madman at the stones either. Another odd thing on top of the dead bodies. She needed to know more before she attacked anyone. Easing up from a crouch, she peered into the next floor.
A man stood with his back to her, his hands on the shoulders of a woman. The sag in his stance suggested the same tiredness clear in her face. Both wore grimy robes. Neither seemed like they plotted murder.
Instead, they looked like her parents the day Grandam died. Crossbow hanging in one hand, she stepped through the archway.
The couple separated as she entered and stared at her with matched frowns.
Anessa raised her left hand. “Blessings on you.”
The corners of the man’s mouth rose. For a moment, she thought they’d greet her back. Then the woman yanked a knife from her belt and lunged forward.
Anessa’s breath stuttered. So this was what it felt like to get stabbed. Dull, like a punch. Not how she’d expected at all.