Previously on Seven Stones: Dereck Aycock, horrified at what his grandfather has become, kills him and sets the temple alight. Kobb and Anessa flee while the east-siders are distracted by the fire. Lambart is overjoyed that Anessa is safe, but tells her she needs to leave Morth in case the villagers overreact. Their return the circle happens without incident. However, Kobb realises the stone is still shifting, so evil has survived in Morth.
Kobb stepped towards the stone. No wonder the trip had been so easy. If he went back now, he had time to do what needed to be done and return without Anessa knowing. The east-siders would still be distracted, either by the fire or by the aftermath.
But there was no guarantee they’d taken whichever of the Aycocks survived to Tremaine’s house. Searching the entire village would take too long; assuming he could even do it without being spotted.
And Aycock’s cult had existed for years. What if the connection hadn’t been the Aycocks at all? Returning alone and without knowing more was too risky. He couldn’t do much about being alone. Haelen needed time to recover. And telling Anessa she’d given up her home without ending the evil might break her. But he might be able to find out more.
Haelen had intended to study the mad man’s notes. He might have found something to locate sources of evil. After giving Falcon a rub down and a nosebag of oats, Kobb headed to the improvised infirmary.
One of the patients muttered and twisted in his sleep, sweat glistening on his brow. Haelen looked up as Kobb entered, his face sombre. “Thought I heard you return. Another woman passed.”
“It’s not your fault. I’m sure you did everything you could.”
“If it weren’t for this…” Haelen shook his head. “But you don’t seem happy. Where’s Anessa? Did something—?”
“The stone transported us to her village. She’s not wounded, but…”
“It’s not easy when the threat’s close to home?”
Kobb nodded. “Nothing her neighbours won’t forgive once they calm down. She’ll feel lost for a while, though. That’s not the problem though. We thought we dealt with the evil. The stone’s still shifting, though. I need to return. Finish what we—”
“You must have weakened it at least, shaken its hold. If you deal with the other stones, it might be enough to draw the power back here anyway.”
“What if it isn’t?” Kobb stepped further into the tent. “How can I let it fester?”
“Then you go after you’ve dealt with the rest.” Haelen rested a hand on Kobb’s shoulder. “We know the other stones lead to somewhere evil’s growing. If Morth doesn’t straighten out on its own, it’s still the place with the least evil. Makes sense to leave it till last; even if you don’t weigh Anessa’s feelings.”
“In the night.” The sweating man’s eyes snapped open. “Took her.”
Kobb stepped forward, but stopped as Haelen placed a hand on his chest.
“A nightmare. Best let him rest.” Haelen peered at Kobb. “What about you? Do you have enough of the potion?”
Kobb patted his jacket. “Should last me a while. Maybe you’re right. Going back or not, I’ll be better for a night’s sleep.” He crept to the other tent, careful not to wake Anessa.
When he woke, Anessa had already started breakfast. As he headed towards her, still unsure whether to tell her now or risk her noticing on her own, Haelen emerged from the infirmary.
Slumping onto a log, Haelen rubbed pinched his nose. “That man died this morning. I don’t want… Sometimes I wonder if it’s worth it.”
“Man?” Anessa stopped stirring.
“I went to see Haelen after we returned. One of the men we rescued had a nightmare about some monster taking someone. Is that what killed him, Haelen? The insects did something to his mind?”
Haelen gazed at the floor. “I can’t remove the things they’ve seen. Maybe it’s better they don’t wake up till it’s all over.”
“What about you?” Anessa spooned porridge into a bowl and held it out. “You need sleep too. I’ll watch them for a bit.”
“No. I’ll be fine. Best way you can help is dealing with whatever affected the stones.”
“You did get gored,” said Kobb. “Lie down for a while. One of us will wake you if there’s a problem.”
“I’m grateful for the offer.” Haelen pushed porridge around his bowl. “My wound’s healed enough to cope, though. I don’t want to delay you.”
Kobb’s eyebrows rose. It had only been two days. “You’re the healer. It looked serious to me, though.”
“I wouldn’t be much of a Legion Healer if I couldn’t get someone on their feet after they’d been stabbed.” Haelen stood, his movements as smooth as if he were uninjured. “It’s other things I can’t fix. If it makes you feel better, I’ll take it easier today; not study the notes.”
If echoes of evil was what killed those people, re-balancing the stones as soon as possible did more good than waiting a day so Haelen could rest. Kobb nodded. “Deal. We’ll finish breakfast and head out. We’ll stay long enough we don’t have to gulp it down, though.”
As he’d hoped, Anessa heard his comment as permission to scrape every last oat out of the pot. While she was still spooning, he saddled Falcon and led him to the stone furthest from the one for Morth. Wouldn’t be right to lie; that didn’t mean he should throw the problem in her face, though. Even if cleaning more corruption didn’t produce a noticeable improvement, a few days distance might salve the pain of separation enough she listened to Haelen’s idea.
Recognising his reasoning for the veneer it was, he turned away as Anessa approached.
His surroundings twisted away as he grabbed at the threads of power.
A murky grey sky boiled up and a bitter stench flooded his nostrils. Dark water stretched before him, the occasional rotting fish dotting the surface and the tattered remains of reeds marking the edge. In the distance, twisted trees clustered on a small island.
A scream tore the air behind him. Kobb spun, unsheathing his Courser and rapier.
A huge shape, covered in fur and bat-winged, but with a sharp, curving beak, arrowed towards the lake. Clasped beneath it, a man struggled.
Anessa’s crossbow twanged. The creature was moving too fast, though.
Kobb brought his Courser up at the same time. Before he could use it, the beast was over the lake. If he killed it now, the man would fall in the water, end up sick or worse. But if he didn’t the man was dead. Purple light blazed.