Seven Stones: Part Forty-Nine

Seven Stones

Previously on Seven Stones: Anessa and Kobb discover that the occupants of the ruins are the survivors of an archaeological expedition. Karak sealed himself up in a tower and summoned the beasts to keep the others away. Anserth is preventing him from leaving, but is unable to get to the tower. When she discovers Anessa sneaked in and out unseen, Anserth asks Anessa to sneak past Karak’s defences.

Anessa shifted her weight onto her right foot without a sound. The edge of the rubble’d been a mess of loose chips; now she’d past that the footing was mostly stable, though. However, as she moved her left leg forward, the rigid leather guard pressed against her thigh. Startled, she stumbled.

Her left hand grabbed a nearby rock, but the ill-balanced shift made the mail on her torso rattle. The night air crept through the spaces between panels, giving her another reason to miss her comfortable leathers. After tilting her head for a few moment without hearing shouts or the flap of wings, she decided she’d not been noticed.

She wondered if the armour’d been a good idea: most of the time it moved with her, then as she thought she’d got used to it, it caught or rattled. But, if Anserth’s best fighters hadn’t crept in, would being a little quieter make a difference anyway?

Caught between worrying about beasts and worrying about how to move, she struggled up the stones. The wind brushed her face, so less noise’d reach the tower. And at least while she was on this side of the barrier, Kobb’d see a creature well before it pounced. She focused on the rubble in front of her. No use thinking about the other side until she’d seen it.

Inch by inch, she gained another yard, then cursed inside as the night grew darker. Clear skies made her easier to spot. If she couldn’t see the stones, she couldn’t avoid the loose ones though; and sound’d carry where a glimpse of brown leather mightn’t. And she plain didn’t want to think about rain or snow. Limbs braced yet not rigid, she stopped clambering and glanced up. The rubble ahead was a mass of angular shadows, but a few feet further on, the stone shone pale.

The cold settled deeper as she glanced around. The stones to either side weren’t in shadow. She tilted her head until her neck ached. Dark leather blocked the sky. Pressing closer to the rubble, she tried to tell herself knowing where the creature was was a Blessing. She wasn’t listening to herself though. Only to the lack of utter silence.

The strain of that morning’s exertions oozed deeper into her shoulders. She shifted more weight onto her legs. However, tensed for the expected bolt of purple fire, her body’d become too rigid; instead of her right knee bending, her foot slipped across the rubble.

Her fingers snapped closed as pain jagged along her arms. She swallowed her shout; yet could do nothing about the scuff of her boot or the skitter of mortar chips that followed. Why hadn’t Kobb fired? He must’ve seen the beast. And even if she’d been too stealthy, the moonlight’d light up—

If he attacked, the night’d blaze purple. Even if Karak didn’t have a way of sensing power, he’d see that; and know something had happened. Kobb was relying on her to sneak past. He’d fire if it pounced. But until then…

The creature hadn’t though. Moving one limb at a time, she turned onto her side. Against the moon, the beast formed a single dark mass, even its wings still. The edge didn’t have the angles of a beak; it faced away from her. Just as she hadn’t seen or heard it until it was over her, it’d somehow hadn’t noticed her.

And better still, it must’ve taken the skitter of stones for natural shifting. Aware she’d received a pile of Blessings already, she eased onto her stomach and drew herself up the rubble even slower than before.

Though the thought of claws brushed against her neck, she refused to check behind. Each movement was a chance for a boot to scuff or a hand to slip, a chance for the creature to turn. Muscles burning, yet skin chilled, she crawled over the top of the barrier and folded into the shadow of a broken arch.

Two lights flickered from a window in the fourth storey of the tower. Above them, jagged walls jutted into the sky. Between Anessa and the base, a strip of clear ground slashed across the ruins, she presumed where the top of the tower’d smashed the buildings then been cleared to make the barrier.

The scar’d be quicker than clambering between the ruins, yet more exposed. The creatures’d ignored her even when she’d was in the open by the lake, and Anserth’s men used the smell of juniper to attract them. Maybe they didn’t hunt by sight or sound. Unashamed of her desire to reach her destination, she decided on speed.

The pinch of imagined talons chased her down the slope and across to the foot of the tower. Pressed against the wall, she allowed herself to glance up. Only the stars looked down. Anserth’d said Karak sealed the door; he might have opened it again after the wall was built though. After straightening her shoulders, she circled the tower. Partway round, while she squeezed under a fallen arch, something softer shifted beneath her foot.

This time, she caught her stumble without any noise. One of the warriors Anserth’d sent. She crouched. Maybe he’d have something that’d help her. Unable to make out much in the shadow, she followed his arm.

Cloth, not leather or chain, met her fingers. Stranger still, his shoulder was covered by cloth too. Had he stripped his armour to be— Anessa snatched her hand away. The body was a woman. Slender, but a woman. Judging a decent gap, she reached for the woman’s stomach. And felt bile rise up as her fingers sank into something clammy.

Guilt struggling with necessity, she wiped her hand on the body’s trousers. But instead found robes. She rocked in her heels. A fighter might not wear armour if they wanted to sneak; they wouldn’t wear robes though. She must be one of the other scholars.

After an apology, Anessa crept on. It didn’t feel right leaving her; Kobb could do a proper burial once Anessa’d done her part, though. Several yards further round, she stopped. A short wall jutted from the side of the tower, the body and arms of a robed man visible beyond it. A slash, edges dark in the moonlight, marred his back. But only one.

Anessa frowned. Didn’t seem right. The beasts snatched people up or dropped rocks on them. They had claws, but claws left several wounds. She crept closer.

Something was very wrong. All but one of a creature’s claws might have missed. A creature might’ve hit the woman hard enough to knock her into a gap too narrow for its wingspan. But the crossbow bolt jutting from the man’s thigh hadn’t been fired by any beast.

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