Previously on Seven Stones: Kobb tells the approaching warriors that he rescued the girl from a monster. Anessa claims she smells of smoke because she sleeps close to the campfire at night. The patrol leads Kobb and Anessa to a basement deep in the ruins where Kobb is surprised to discover Anserth is a former captain in the Legion. The legionary reveals she doesn’t believe Anessa’s story about the juniper.
Kobb tilted his head towards Anserth to acknowledge the point. He hoped honesty would strengthen the fragile trust. “Anessa scouted some of the ruins to discover your allegiances before we revealed ourselves.”
The sound of swords leaving sheaths rang from the walls. Anessa raised her crossbow as she turned to face the soldiers behind them.
“A scout?” Anserth quirked an eyebrow. Her sword remained undrawn. Not that that would delay a veteran much. “That doesn’t sound like the act of an honest traveller.”
“Just good sense. Those beasts flew both ways.” Kobb swept a hand back and forth, fingers flapping. The movement sent glitters of firelight off his Courser. “Wouldn’t want to mistake enemies and friends.”
For a moment, Anserth stared at him. Then a snort of laughter broke through. “Stand down, men. Suppose you wouldn’t need to sneak up if you meant us harm. Might even be good fortune you turned up.”
Anessa slung her crossbow. “What do you mean it might be lucky?”
“Karak’s sealed himself up in a section of the ruins. He can’t get out, but we can’t get in. We’ll break through; however, until we do he’s free to send those creatures out to attack. You change matters though.”
Kobb tilted his shoulders, trying to make it seem a random shift rather than releasing tension. He’d hoped Anserth wouldn’t get in the way of redirecting the corrupted power; being asked to solve was even better. “We’ll need to know how this started.”
Anserth turned to the patrol leader. “Orlin, scrounge us up some water. Come into my boudoir, Militant…. But, where are my manners. Inductor Saevisa Anserth at your service. Whom do I have the honour to address?”
“Reverend Absolution is like the Silence of the Waterfall Kobb of the Order of the Maker. My companion is Worthy Anessa Tanton.” Kobb ignored Anessa’s startled look at unexpected title. Pausing to explain would make them seem vulnerable. “We are honoured to address the Hand of the Council.”
Anserth slammed her fists together. “Blood and Stone of One Will.” After a moment, she dropped her hands back to her sides. “That’s the ‘who’s got the biggest muscles’ out the way; let’s talk.”
Kobb followed her into a small stone vault. A single cot stood at the far end with a banded chest at the foot. Otherwise, the room was empty. “I shall have to pace myself. These luxuries might overwhelm me.”
Anserth snorted. “I had a camp desk too; it was lost when a creature dropped masonry on my tent. Which is why we’ve moved underground, and why we set the jasmine fires. Karak’s beasts still get us; this way, at least it’s while we’re awake, while we have a chance to fight back. But you said you wanted the beginning. Karak is a member of the University, an archaeologist. Several months ago, he approached the rector claiming he’d found mention of a hidden chamber in these ruins. The University agreed to fund an expedition. When Karak put the call out for someone to lead the guards, I took the job and added my unit to the roster.”
Kobb frowned. “Guarding an academic seems a little outside the tasks of an Inductor.”
“Karak, like many academics, is prone to chasing mist. Five years ago, he wrote a paper suggesting similarities between the markings found in ruins across the provinces and the patterns the Eaters carve on their masks. His proposal didn’t mention more research on that theory, but the Council wished to make sure the expedition was protected if he decided to go looking for savages. Turned out they were right to worry he’d left some of his aims out; not the ones they thought, though.
“At first, no one realised it wasn’t an ordinary expedition. We reached here without incident. We found the tower Karak sought still standing, and set up camp nearby. The next afternoon, he uncovered the chamber. He spent longer and longer down there each day, then had a cot moved in. Three days later, the watch leader reported Karak hadn’t come up for supplies and the door to the tower wouldn’t open. Before I’d left my tent, the first of those creatures had arrived.” She paused as Orlin entered carrying a flagon of water. “More of them arrived soon after. We tried to hold them off, but the beasts pushed us back. We thought we were rescuing Karak; then he appeared in a window and ordered us to leave. Each time we advanced, his beasts snatched guards up or dropped masonry on us until we had to retreat. And when we did, they added more rubble to the piles in the streets. Soon there was a wall surrounding the tower too high to climb.”
“What about attacking at night?” said Anessa.
“We tried. I sent five of my best fighters over. None of them came back. I thought he’d have to come out when his supplies ran out. The creatures must bring him food. There were a few wooden structures. We managed to land flaming arrows, but the fire wasn’t enough to drive him out. Which left an attack on multiple fronts.”
Kobb squeezed his chin. “Those beasts are fast. Even with my Courser, a frontal assault means casualties.”
“It would. But it isn’t your help I’m asking for.” Anserth tilted her head at Anessa. “Worthy, you scouted the ruins without us realising. If it hadn’t been for the smoke, we’d never have known. You could get in unnoticed.”
“And what if she can’t?” Kobb said. “Those creatures—”
“I’ll do it.” Anessa grabbed his elbow. “It’ll save lives, so I’ll do it.”
Anserth nodded. “My thanks. Orlin, find the Worthy clothes that don’t smell of juniper.”
After passing a slow yet utterly clinical gaze up Anessa’s body, Orlin pointed at the door. “I’ve a few ideas. Follow me.”
Kobb waited until Anessa had left then stared at Anserth. “First sign Anessa’s in trouble, I’m going in.”
“And my unit will be right behind you if you do. Whatever happens, we’ll put an end to this today. Once she’s ready, I’ll take you both forward myself.”
Deciding he’d proved he was a threat enough for one day, Kobb sat on the cot and sipped the water. He’d almost emptied the flagon when Anessa returned. She still wore brown; but in place of a soft jacket and trousers, chain panels and boiled leather covered her body and limbs. He wasn’t sure which worried him more: that she didn’t carry herself like a warrior, or that she nearly did.
He watched her as they crossed the ruins, half-hoping the armour made her clumsy enough to demand Anserth abandoned her scheme. But it seemed Orlin had chosen well. Anessa moved with almost the same grace, and what stiffness he did see could easily be only wishes. Ahead, all too close, a broken-topped tower jutted into the twilight.
Anserth raised her left fist as they rounded the final corner, then pointed, unnecessarily, at the mass of stone blocking the street. “We believe there’s only a single wall.”
For a moment, Anessa seemed frozen. Then she pressed her fist to her throat and bowed her head to Kobb. Before he could decide what to say, she’d crept away.
He watched her until she reached the wall, but lost her in the shadows. If he couldn’t see her even knowing she was there, then Karak wouldn’t either. It was a Blessing.
So why didn’t it feel like one?
A boot scuffed behind him. Giving up his fruitless search for Anessa, he turned. Col crouched next to Anserth, a large bundle in his arms. Kobb’s forehead creased. It looked — “Are the healers nearby? Isn’t it dangerous to bring the girl so close?”
“I didn’t mention Karak’s wife’s an archaeologist too. They brought their daughter.” Anserth shrugged. “We spotted the beast carry her over the lines this morning. Couldn’t stop it, though. I hope your companion succeeds. If she doesn’t, then I’ll break the deadlock another way.”