Previously on Seven Stones: After tying a mud-soaked rag around her face, Anessa gets close enough to see the Korha without falling asleep. Her bolt bursts the Korha’s eye, but she is horrified to see the flesh reforming. Wondering if the Korha has a closer connection with the mist than merely hiding in it, she tries to burn the mist off. Her improvised torch drives away the venom in the air, but doesn’t stop a massive tentacle from attacking her.
Without the swirling mist to explain away the oddities, Anessa’s mind rejected the sight before her. Her eyes instinctively clamped shut.
She retched as a bitter stench filled her nostrils. Something slammed into the swamp next to her, spattering her with more filth. She cracked open one eye as another fit of retching overcame her.
Thick grey fumes billowed around her. She staggered sideways. A withered tendril, leaden smoke trickling from fast-spreading cracks, twitched in the mud. She had hoped the torch would hurt it, but could never have imagined the fire burning it up so fast it didn’t even touch her.
Eyes tearing from the smoke, she waited. Mist swirled around the remains of the tentacle, then drifted away. It was really dead. Brandishing her new weapon, she slogged towards what she hoped was Kobb.
Two more tentacles burst from the fog.
Swinging the torch like a club, she struck at the closer threat.
As soon as the fire touched it, the tentacle folded back on itself, seeming further away than the distance would allow. Hanging in the air for a moment, it tumbled down like a rotten branch.
Anessa lunged sideways to meet the second tentacle. Thrusting the torch ahead of her, she sent it tumbling into the swamp.
A mass of fanged limbs shredded the mist before her.
The fog gave way to a smoke both fouler and more welcome as she swung the torch again and again.
Blinded and coughing, she felt something strike her across the left shoulder. Her legs gave way, and she tumbled forward. Her last sight before the murk of the swamp flooded her vision was the torch sizzling out in a pool.
A great weight pressed her into the filthy water. Lungs aching, she tried to push up but the weight was too great. The water bubbled in front of her as air was squeezed from her chest.
Fighting down panic, she realised the weight wasn’t moving. She clawed at the mud, dragging herself slowly forward.
The exertion burnt up her remaining breath. Unable to stop herself inhaling, she gagged as icy muck filled her mouth. Scrabbling against the filth again, she forced her head up enough that the vomit didn’t choke her.
Arms becoming numb, she dragged again.
The weight shifted onto her legs. Twisting sideways, she pulled one leg free then the other. After collapsing onto her back, she realised the fog had almost gone. No longer sure which pain was which, she forced herself up.
Leaden threads lay in a twisted mass across torn ground. Each seemed still and dead when she looked at it, but seen from the corner of her eye, they seemed to slip through each other.
Her hands shook as she fell to her knees. The shaking spread until her entire body seemed palsied. She could feel the sun on her face and managed to pull her coat closed, but the shivering wouldn’t stop.
At some point, she noticed Kobb lying beneath one of the densest clusters of tendrils. The shaking stopped once she started crawling towards him. She couldn’t see any wounds, but his eyes remained closed and neither shaking his shoulder nor calling his name brought any reaction.
Grabbing under his armpits, she tried to slide him free. Tendrils cracked, releasing a thick pale fluid closer to sap than blood. Unwilling to take the risk it was venom, she threw herself backwards.
Pain shot up her back as she hit the ground, followed by another down her neck as Kobb’s weight folded her forward again. Drawing in lumps of air, she confirmed his legs were free of the burnt mass. Purple light fractured as the last of the mist cleared.
Shifting from under Kobb’s body, she trudged over. Kobb’s Courser lay between two tussocks, filmed with dank water but unbroken. After looking from her filth-spattered clothes to his, she put it back in his holster as it was.
Kobb felt much heavier than Haelen had. She finally got his arm around her shoulder, only to discover his legs wouldn’t hold his weight. Hoping he would wake soon, she wrapped her arms across his chest and shuffled backwards.
Craning over one shoulder she dragged him over to Falcon. Lowering Kobb down, she considered the horse. He seemed equally asleep. She gathered her courage and patted his side gently.
The green mould was gone, but he didn’t react. Ready to leap backwards, she slapped his shoulder.
Falcon’s head twitched slightly, like a man settling in sleep, and then he stilled.
No help there then. Peering through the tatters of mist, Anessa made out slightly more regular shapes in the distance. Hoping it was the village, she eased Kobb up and began to slog through the muck.
Uncounted pauses and deviations later, she reached the more solid ground on the edge of Alcston. Focused only on the next step, it took her a moment to notice the sounds of muttering.
Kobb’s left arm was twitching.
She lowered him to the ground. “Kobb? Can you hear me? Absolution?”
“… silence… waterfall.”
“Absolution is like the silence of the waterfall,” said Haelen from behind her. “It’s from the Book of Blessings.”
Kobb snorted gracelessly and rolled onto his side. Peering up at them for a moment with wide eyes, he burst out laughing. Each time it seemed he had returned to his usual serious self another spasm of chuckling curled him up again.
Anessa was beginning to wonder if the fight had turned him simple when he clambered to his feet.
“Best night’s sleep in many a month.” Kobb slapped Anessa on the shoulder.
Haelen stared at him with one eyebrow raised. “It might be safer to use the potion from now on.”
Anessa’s shoulders slumped. “It’s gone. I burnt the Korha. It was all for nothing.”
“Not quite.” Haelen pointed at a hut behind him. “Whoever stayed there was more than just a farmer. There are bottles of venom and other things, and books of notes. The mould got in, and I’m not sure a decent person would want to touch some of it anyway, but there’s plenty to make the potion and replenish my supplies.”
Anessa turned as the sound of splashing echoed from behind them. Falcon galloped into the village.
Trying to remember she had just killed a horrible beast, Anessa forced herself not to run. “I’ll check on the survivors. They’ll have woken up too.”
Kobb’s smile disappeared. “We should head on before we lose the light.”
“We can’t just—” Anessa’s mind finally processed Haelen’s appearance. After all the slogging through filth, she had assumed the stains on his tunic were mud; but they were redder, more vibrant, than the grey brown slurry that clung to her clothes. She squelched past him.
Three blood-stained bundles, the size of sleeping people, lay along the side wall of the hut.
“The venom kept them asleep, but it also stopped blood loss.” Haelen laid a hand on her elbow. “Once it wore off…”
Anessa staggered backwards. People in Morth had always claimed Botherers were just trying to trick things out of people, but they weren’t. Pure evil was real.
“Kobb’s right,” said Haelen. “We should take what we can and go.”
“My crossbow! I lost it. How will I—?”
“There were weapons in a few of the huts. I can—”
“No.” Anessa swallowed hard. “You need to gather up the things for Kobb’s potion.” Shoulders rigid she headed for the next hut and then the next.
She found a boot that had somehow avoided mildew. None of the crossbows were close to hers, but one of them would be usable with a little work. And the turf-hook, although dotted with rust, felt reassuring as it brushed against her leg.
Kobb and Haelen were bent over a large parchment when she returned.
Kobb glanced at the 12-inch blade on her hip and nodded sharply. “We found a map. Whoever was here was doing more than study the swamp. The writing’s in code, but there are lines linking the swamp and other places to something north of here. We might finally have a destination.”