Previously on Seven Stones: Kobb and Anessa are taken to the east-siders’ temple to be sacrificed. As they break free of their captors, Anessa finds herself frozen in place as what she thought a statue turns out to be Wilber Aycock, still alive but twisted by foul magics. While Wilber punishes the east-siders for the near escape, Kobb breaks away. Only to surrender as Dereck arrives with a crossbow.
Kobb backed towards the altar. A bolt to the vitals would be a clean death compared to what the two elder Aycocks intended; from the way Dereck’s hands shook though, he could as easily be left crippled yet alive.
“Well done,” gurgled Wilber. “I told you Dereck deserved initiation. Maybe my grandson can make up for your mistakes.”
“Grandson?” Dereck’s aim swung right to point at Wilber before twitching back to cover Kobb. “What is that? How did it—?”
Tremaine frowned at his son. “Bow to your grandfather. The God made him strong, as he will make me in my time.”
“God? You mean like…?” Dereck spat towards Kobb.
“No.” Wilber spread his arms and stepped into the light. “A true god. One who shares. One who gives us power and will give us more.”
Dereck glared at the former man. “This is the secret? Dad said was about keeping Morth pure. Stopping outsiders stealing what’s ours. Not becoming some… some monster!”
The crossbow twanged. Dereck looked down, as if unsure what he’d done.
Wilber collapsed to his knees, fingers around the bolt embedded his stomach.
Angular words lashed out of Tremaine’s mouth. Dereck moaned as purple fire constricted around him.
Seeing a slim chance, Kobb grabbed the knife from the altar and sprinted towards Wilber.
Wilber’s eyes cracked wide as he realised Kobb’s intent. However, years of being master over hunters and foresters was no preparation for facing a trained warrior.
Left hand slamming down on Wilber’s right wrist, Kobb flicked his right arm into the gap. Dark fluid, more black than red, spurted as Wilber’s throat opened.
The blade spun in Kobb’s hand, as his arm reversed direction.
Knife jutting between his shoulders, Wilber collapsed forward.
The sound of flesh hitting flesh came from behind Kobb and Tremaine’s chanting fell silent. Kobb turned.
Dereck lay on the ground, fingers clasped across his mouth. Tremaine stood in the other side of the pit, his eyes tinged purple.
As Tremaine unleashed the curse, Anessa slammed into his back.
Caught by surprise, Tremaine staggered forward. Soil crumbled beneath his weight. Fingers grabbing at the air and magic replaced by a wordless gasp, he tumbled into the pit.
A breath later, Tremaine’s shout ended with a wet crack.
Leaving Anessa to overcome the last of their captors, Kobb peered at Wilber. There were no signs of life, but how long had he sat in the alcove without moving? And how much had the power changed him? Kobb reached for the knife. Best to be sure.
The stench of burning fat boiled up as dirty orange light flared across the room. Kobb dropped and rolled.
The expected heat didn’t come, though. He straightened. Flamed wreathed the altar. Next to it, Dereck, still swaying from the blow to his head, tugged at a second lamp.
On the far side of the pit, Anessa, crossbow in one hand, wrestled with the other east-sider. Kobb circled the pit, one eye out for loose soil. Before he reached them, the man broke free and sprinted for the door.
A wall of heat bubbled up as Dereck dropped the second lamp almost at his feet. Flames surged around him. He staggered past the burning altar, seeming intent on adding more lamps to the flame.
Kobb grabbed Anessa’s shoulder as she lunged for Dereck. “We have to leave him.”
“If we’re quick, the flames won’t—” Anessa broke off as Kobb yanked her towards the door.
He understood Anessa’s instinct to save Dereck, even commended it. But he hadn’t meant they might be burned. The power could pass through blood, and Dereck had been born after Tremaine became the public face of the cult: Dereck was tainted. However much Dereck hated what his grandfather had become, the magic answered emotions; every time his life didn’t go the way he wanted brought a chance he’d let it loose. Once he did, it was only be a matter of time until he decided he could control it; that he wouldn’t become the monster.
As they staggered from the building, Anessa twisted free of Kobb’s grip. Her frown of accusation melted away as she saw the east-siders rushing towards them, led by their former captor. Grinning, she ran for Tremaine’s house.
The east-siders, intent on the smoke oozing from the temple, ignored Kobb as he jogged after her.
Anessa stopped outside Tremaine’s house. She hung her head for a moment before meeting his gaze. “Sorry. You knew Coraed’d bring help. You meant we leave them to rescue Dereck so we can get our stuff back.”
Kobb stepped past and opened the door. Leaving Dereck to die was the right thing to do; that didn’t make it any easier to live with, though. “You’ve nothing to apologise for.”
Everything still rested on the side table where the east-siders had left it. Whether through fear or a desire to gloat for longer, Tremaine had returned to the temple without putting it away.
Weapons back in their proper place, the two of them headed for Lambart’s store. Despite the clumps of villagers chattering and pointing at the wisps of smoke, Lambart continued to pile sacks into a wagon. Several of the groups muttered louder as Kobb crossed the street.
Anessa sprinted forward. “Dad. We’re safe.”
A sack of oatmeal spilled as Lambart spun and gathered Anessa up. “Nessy. I thought… Thank you, Reverend.”
“Your daughter saved me as much as I saved her.”
Anessa hugged her dad closer. “We beat the Aycocks. You can stay now.”
“Maybe.” Lambart stepped away, face serious. “But you need to go, both of you. Things might calm down and you can come back. But the Reverend’s an outsider, and – whatever the Aycocks have done – most people here won’t listen to some weird justification.”
“But…” Anessa looked at Kobb, forehead creased.
“He’s right, Anessa. We need to leave.”
Eyes glistening, Anessa pulled her dad close. A moment later, she broke away and strode down the street, back rigid with the effort of not looking around.
Kobb nodded to Lambart, then headed after her.
Despite the foul weather and tangled vegetation, Kobb barely noticed the trip to Falcon. Losing his family had felt as if part of him had been hollowed out; what must it feel like to give them up?
He sighed and reached for the patterns around him. The world blurred and reformed into a circle of stones. Each time it seemed easier.
Shoulders rounded, Anessa stumbled towards the tents.
Kobb patted Falcon on the nose. Best to give her some room. As he turned to remove Falcon’s saddle, Kobb realised his vision was blurry. He dabbed at his eyes, but the blurring remained and his hand came away dry.
He swept his gaze across the circle. The tents and everything else seemed crisp. When he looked back, he was certain the stone next to him had changed position.
They hadn’t done enough. Something or someone had survived the fire.