Previously on Seven Stones: Anessa sneaks to the ruins. Spotting one of the inhabitants strolling along the street, she follows him. The man ducks into an intact structure that smells strongly of smoke. While trying to find a way to sneak in without being noticed, Anessa sees the inhabitant creeping away. After discovering the building contains nothing apart from a fire built to smell without giving off a plume, she realises the inhabitants want to draw people here.
Anessa crept sideways across the room, peering through the doorway as she went. Nothing moved in the street, and the buildings looked abandoned. Crossbow ready, she padded forward, skirting the spill of light.
Still no sign of anyone or anything odd. If they watched all the time, they’d have seen her on the roof or creeping about. Slipping around the jamb, she jogged to a pile of rubble and crouched down. A chill wind stirred the dust, but not the shadows. She let her eyes drift. Something might catch the corner of her eye if she didn’t force it.
As she’d half-expected, nothing did. If there were people here, they wouldn’t send someone from another place to tend the fire. And if someone saw her approaching the ruins and set up an ambush, they’d have sprung it by now. So, the area was abandoned. But was the fire a delaying tactic, or did they want to lure people here for a purpose?
The man’s movements were odd too. If you stroll somewhere, then sneak away, you want to be followed for the first part. But the ruins had hidden him until she was almost on top of him; even the scuff of his boots hadn’t given her much warning. So why—
The creatures. The rubble blocked her view at ground level, but something flying’d see him from a distance. So whatever the inhabitants had planned could include all the streets he’d strolled along too. After closing her eyes for a moment to recall the man’s departure, she set off after him.
Several long moments later, she reached the last place she’d seen him. Peering past the remains of a wall, she discovered a mostly clear street running in both directions. Lines of buildings stretched both ways without side turnings; but several had collapsed enough, they’d be no more than inconveniences. If his route to the fire had been a trick, he probably hadn’t turned that way. That still left two directions he could have gone, though; as well as all the intact buildings he could have stopped in.
Anessa closed her eyes again. Apart from the gusting of the wind through tumbled stone, the area was quiet. And the juniper smoke removed any chance of smelling another camp. People cunning enough to make a hidden fire wouldn’t let the one they were camped near smoke, anyway.
After drifting her gaze across the nearby buildings again to be sure, she guessed where the nearest of the cloaked watchers was and crept that way. Rubble blocked the back of the building she chose; but a window in the next opened onto another clear street, this one curving in the direction she wanted.
Several yards past the bend, more fallen stones blocked the street. Anessa slung her crossbow so both her hands were free for clambering, and peered into the surrounding buildings. No way through. At least the delay reduced the chance she’d catch up with the fire tender without warning.
She backtracked, but the previous side turning was a dead end too.
Finally, she found a ruin clear enough to pass through. As she crept down yet another pile of stone, a woman in leather armour clambered into sight ahead.
Anessa ducked into a side street. Two doorways gaped, and beyond them the collapsed front wall of the next building half-blocked the way. Not wanting to risk being trapped between the woman and a rooftop watcher, Anessa jogged to the rubble and crouched.
Several breaths later, the woman turned into the street. If she continued on, she’d almost certainly see Anessa; but if Anessa didn’t stay still, she might notice the movement. Drawing a weapon posed the same risk, and Anessa wasn’t sure she could kill someone in cold blood anyway. Thighs aching from the strain of keeping low, she sidled into the remains of the building.
“Who goes?” A harsh whisper came from above.
Anessa pressed herself against the side of the building.
A higher-pitched voice responded nearby. “Anserth endures.”
Something scuffed on the roof behind Anessa, followed by the murmur of conversation. Sounded too calm to be planning an attack; it they must be talking about what the watcher had seen. She needed to get closer.
Cracks marred the wall, just wide enough for a fingertip. The lingering discomfort in Anessa’s shoulders from the sword blows earlier blossomed into an ache as she pulled herself up.
“…flew over twice this morning,” said the man.
“Orlin’s unit fired the stables at day’s turn. Karek must be getting desperate.”
“Wish they’d burnt him. Him and all his kind.”
“He’ll have to come out soon.”
Unable to get even the tip of her boot into a crack to ease the strain, Anessa felt her fingers slipping. Lips clamped tight, she lowered herself down. Karek was allied with the creatures. Which meant these people were trying to stop the evil. She didn’t need to skulk around any more.
Although, the others attacked without even asking for surrender, so it might be better not to be found this close to one of their guards. Ears straining for the moment the voices fell silent or shifted, Anessa backed along the street and slipped into the ruins.
Retracing her steps meant going out of her way, but given how good the inhabitants were at sneaking, it seemed safer than crossing unknown ground. Eventually, she crested the rise. Falcon grazed, unconcerned by the risk of monsters, while Kobb sat beside the still figure of the girl.
Kobb rose as she approached. “Good to see you back.”
“Managed to overhear a couple of them. Karek’s the one with the monsters. The others are trying to stop him. Sounded like they’ve trapped him somewhere in the ruins. So, I reckon we’re safe walking in.”
“We’ll have to risk it anyway.” Kobb glanced at the girl. “The bleeding’s slow, but she’s been still too long. She should have twitched or moaned by now, and her skin feels odd.”
“Might seem less threatening if I carry her and you follow. If those beasts come back, you’re more likely to hit them than me anyway.”
Kobb loosened his Courser, but didn’t draw it. “Best not to prepare too much though. Might give the wrong idea.”
Anessa lifted the girl and walked up the slope. She could feel what Kobb meant: the girl’s skin felt cold and slippery as if wet, but Anessa’s hand remained dry. Hoping the people in the ruins’d have answers, she crested the rise. Apart from her shallow breathing, the girl gave no sign of life.
Before she was halfway down the other side, five figures burst from the buildings. As she approached, she realised they each held a crossbow readied.
She dropped to her knees and curled over the girl as the first bolt whistled past her.