Previously on Seven Stones: Eaters attack the group from ambush. Unlike previous attacks, the Eaters are not wearing masks. Anessa discovers a clearing containing several dead Eaters, also without masks, and a still warm bundle of scorched herbs. Haelen suggests moving the bodies so they can sleep for the night, but is interrupted by something racing across the clearing.
Kobb’s head instinctively twisted after the fleeing Eater. Butter-yellow glints shot between the harder flare of its staff. Something didn’t feel right. It sprinted fast enough that they didn’t have time to react; yet its path had curved, taking it within inches of all three of them.
Leaves shifted in the breeze, and the shadows tugged at the corners of his eyes, but nothing seemed out of place. He eased himself to his feet, drawing his weapons as he rose. “You all right, Anessa?”
“Startled. But ain’t harmed.”
“Good enough.” Kobb extended a hand to Haelen. “Anyone else think that thing had horns?”
Haelen pulled himself up. “All I saw was your shoulder, then the ground. If it could run like that, why was it still here? And why didn’t it attack?”
Kobb nodded at the bodies. “Looks like a funeral. Maybe it wasn’t finished, and it waited, hoping we’d head straight on. Once you mentioned staying, it realised we wouldn’t.”
“Why didn’t it sneak away?” Anessa waved her hand at the undergrowth. “They can almost climb in your trousers without being seen, so could have crept away easy at night.”
“Funerals mean the dead matter.” Kobb slung his weapons. “Probably hoping we’d follow once we saw it and not disturb the bodies.”
Anessa peered into the bushes. “Might be right. It’s left a clear enough track.”
“Or it panicked and was moving too fast to be stealthy,” said Haelen, picking leaf mould off his chest. “Either way, tracks won’t help if it can run that fast.”
“Probably can’t, least not for long.” Kobb patted his Courser. “Last few years, I’ve felt the weight every time I used it. Young person could fight for an hour or more, but they’d need a hearty meal after. Faster the Eater runs, sooner it needs to rest. If we start now we might catch it.”
Kobb unslung his saddlebag. “It’ll try to hide when it does rest, though. You’ve the sharpest eyes, Anessa, so best you take Falcon and we’ll follow.”
Anessa’s hands clenched harder on her crossbow. “No… I mean, I ain’t strong enough to wrestle it, and this crossbow’s still pulling a bit so can’t risk shooting.”
“She’s right, Reverend,” said Haelen. “I saw that Eater fight you in the ruins. Needs a soldier.”
Kobb looked from one nervous face to another. Haelen, he understood: Haelen might not acknowledge it, but letting Anessa go racing off on her own would feel like risking his daughter. But Anessa had seemed almost too confident since she brought down the Korha; why wasn’t she itching to go? Regardless, they had a point. “Fair enough. Least I’ll be easy enough to track, so get some rest before you follow. Don’t see cause to disturb the dead, though.”
“We’ll leave them alone,” said Haelen. “As long as they do the same.”
“What!” Anessa jerked her crossbow up to point at the nearest body.
“I think he was joking,” said Kobb, putting his saddlebag back and taking up Falcon’s reins. “Needs practice though.”
Haelen stuck his tongue out. “Wouldn’t have taken you for an expert on humour, Reverend.”
Kobb nodded to them both and led Falcon towards the Eater’s path. As he moved deeper into the undergrowth, the crisp scent of sap fought against the fug of damp leaves and lost. Trusting that nothing else would be forcing its way so brutally through the forest, he followed the bent branches and torn leaves without pausing.
The moon had passed mid-point and the trail continued unbroken, clear enough to see even in the dark. Feet heavy and eyes gritty, he began to doubt the Eater needed sleep. He stumbled to a halt.
Warm air whiffled across the back of his neck. He patted Falcon on the nose. “You’d be happy for the rest too, eh? No use catching up if we’re too tired to do anything.”
Hanging his saddlebag on a nearby branch, he stripped Falcon’s harness and brushed away the day. Yawns fighting against each bite, Kobb forced down half a biscuit before slumping back against a trunk.
He woke to find the rain had found him. Marshalling on leaves, drops drew together to assail his hat. He rubbed the grit from his eyes and, pulling his jacket tighter, peered into the murk.
The signs of the Eater’s forced passage were clearer now, but experience suggested the rain would revive half-crushed vegetation; and the trickles and drips were already tricking his eyes and ears into detecting movement. Taking comfort that the trees would keep the wind from driving the rain directly into his face, he settled Falcon’s harness into place and trudged along the crude trail.
Encouraged by the rain, the ground pulled at his boots, adding a dullness in his legs to the stiffness of a night lacking in deep sleep. The worsening storm drew the shadows closer, and washed away much of the trail, forcing Kobb to slow his pace still further and stay focused on only the closest vegetation to be sure of seeing what signs there were. And so the track caught him by surprise.
He realised the Eater’s passage had met a crude path through the forest. Emerging on a sharp bend, he faced almost exactly down a gloomy tunnel between ancient trees. He glanced left, towards the south: the shadows seemed deeper and branches seemed to reach down as if grasping for what little light has slipped past them.
Ahead, the ground was rutted but appeared free of brambles and other obstructions, and the branches loomed high. That was the route he’d choose if moving at speed. Mounting Falcon, Kobb resolved to close the gap further.
Falcon, seeming as happy as his master not to be forcing through undergrowth, cantered along the path. Moving at speed drove the rain under the brim of Kobb’s hat, but—although it was as wet and cold—the sense that it came from progress not the elements weakened the discomfort.
His gut suggested the Eater would have the same desire to avoid obstacles. Keeping his eyes ahead, he maintained Falcon’s speed. As an unsought blessing, the rain eased as noon approached, sparing him the need to swipe the water from his eyes.
The crude track swayed left and right, but cleaved to the west for much of the day. As late afternoon took the sun beneath the trees, returning the track to murk and shadow, the path curved more sharply to the north. And continued that way.
Torn between the logical assumption the Eater would use the path and the twinge in his gut its path took it more to the west, he pulled Falcon up. Each moment he waited felt like letting the Eater get further away, but wasn’t riding away from it worse? He studied the track ahead. It still looked like the route a fleeing man would choose. But it felt wrong. Hoping he wouldn’t regret it, he swung Falcon round, and walked back to where the track bent away from its westerly line.
Whether it was the slower pace or the conscious seeking, he noticed a faint scent of crushed stems within the rot. Peering into the undergrowth, he made out hints of bent branch and disturbed leaf. Once he dismounted, he picked out more signs that something might have left the track. He didn’t have Anessa’s skill in judging size and time, but the might-be trail pointed west. It was certain enough; and faith would carry the rest.
“Sorry, old friend. It’s back to trudging for a while.” Resettling his weapons, Kobb lead Falcon off the path.
The twin weights of straining against the barrier and fragmented sleep against a tree conspired to press him deeper into the rotten mulch. Feet not clearing the brambles on the first attempt more and more often, he considered waiting for the others to catch up. However, stopping now would give the Eater back any lead Kobb had taken away. Ignoring the tightness across his forehead, he staggered on from crushed sprig to torn leaf. Until even stubbornness was not enough to hold back the acceptance he was too tired to tell act from happenstance; or to respond should he find his quarry.
Washing down another biscuit with a few mouthfuls of Haelen’s potion, he managed to tend to Falcon before slipping into darkness.
Purple light crackled between jutting pillars, tearing away the night but leaving nothing it its wake. Seeming to ooze from the darkness, absence bled into the ground, stealing colour from the vegetation before flowing outward. Trees, pressed close from years without the touch of axe, surged up or twisted together. Branches left jagged by storms grew sharper.
The taste of decay clinging to tongue, Kobb snapped awake, barely turning aside before vomiting. Spitting bile, he clasped his aching head. The dreams had returned.
Squinting up, he thought the sky still dark. With luck, the Eater had stopped last night and not yet moved on. Easing himself to his feet, he chuckled. Wishing his enemy the Blessing of rest when he was denied it was too sharp a lesson in the Maker’s liberality not to smile.
Nodding in contrition in response to Falcon’s silent stare, Kobb forced his legs to carry him forward. The dull thudding in his head, and ache in his joints remained, but after a while the effort of lifting each leg free of the muck and tangles cleared away the fog in his head.
Peering around, he realised he had lost the trail. A sensible man would stop, but he had come so far on the certainty the Eater headed due west that it seemed more effort to stop than go on. Conscious of the pale light creeping through chinks in the trees from behind, he forced himself to move faster.
Something caught his eye as he stumbled on. Focused on keeping his legs moving, it took him some moments to realise trees don’t glint and sparkle. He stopped, settling against a tree as his body remembered he was too tired to move. After staring blankly into the forest for a while, he accepted whatever he had glimpsed was hidden from this direction.
Wanting to spit the cloying taste from his mouth, but unable to muster the energy to do two things at once, he aimed himself at another tree and pitched towards it. He pushed against the trunk, gaining enough momentum to convince his legs he was walking.
For an instant, the dawn fractured to his right, as if light had struck crystal. He leaned back against a tree and studied the area. The glint eluded him.
But his ears picked out a faint snore.