Previously on Seven Stones: Power starts to surge around the stone circle, heating the air. The ritual to stabilise it includes a human sacrifice. However, as a Courser drains the wielder’s strength, Haelen suggests Kobb might be able to avoid the need to kill anyone. When Kobb shoots the altar, the temperature drops to normal and the surging stops. But the world outside the circle becomes faded and indistinct. Reverend Gannon – Kobb’s supposedly deceased mentor – arrives.
Kobb lowered his Courser. “Reverend Gannon?”
“No need to be formal, Absolution. How’ve you been? How’s that cantankerous beast of yours?”
The sound of Anessa’s feet had stopped. She must’ve decided to give them some privacy once she realised Gannon wasn’t a threat. “Falcon’s fine. But never mind me. How did you survive? I saw Raveth obliterated. Nothing could—”
“The Rules don’t tell the whole story. Power can destroy, but no more than an axe can destroy. There are other uses. Ways to move faster, to heal. It’s not the evil we were taught.”
It made a kind of sense. The Skithai used power differently. The Stones allowed people to travel. But, the Belt had driven him to unspeakable fury. “I’ve seen reason to question the Rule, to suggest it might overstate certain risks. But I’ve seen horrors, too. Felt power tug me toward evil.”
“Not claiming it’s without risk. I’ve met my share of monsters. There’s ways to reduce the danger, though. Same as I trained you not to let your power run wild.” Reverend Gannon gestured past the edge of the circle. “Our village’s only a short distance. You’ll see our research for yourself.”
If the blast at Raveth had hurled Reverend Gannon away, then it seemed reasonable he’d arrive near somewhere that used power to travel. Had help been just beyond the trees all this time? “Our…? How many of you are there? I should gather my companions.”
Reverend Gannon shook his head. “Just you for now. Some of the villagers faced persecution. Several armed strangers all at once might be too much. I know this is a shock; I wasn’t expecting to find you here either. But, if it were a trap, wouldn’t I want to lure you all out at once?” He pressed a hand to his chest for a moment, pain squeezing his face.
* * *
Anessa raced forward, each step on the verge of becoming a stumble. “Ma!”
Her mother grinned back. “Nessa. My Nessa, all grown up.”
Anessa stumbled to a halt. She should introduce— No. There’d be time for that later. “How’d you…? The wolves…? Everyone thought… Why didn’t you…?”
“I’m sorry. The wolves did catch me. Mauled me bad. Thought I were done for, then things sort of lurched and everything went black. When I came round the others told me they’d found me half-naked near this circle. I wanted to go back to Morth, but it wasn’t safe to travel alone and the others had important work to do; couldn’t ask them to stop just to get me home.”
Her coffin was nailed down. Da must have seen bit of Ma’s bloody dress and assumed… “Don’t matter. Found you now. Kobb’ll keep us safe on the way.”
After an instant, Ma nodded. “Meal and a good night’s sleep first, though. You’re looking too thin. And when did you last have a bath?”
“Ma!” Anessa tried to pretend to be annoyed, but it wouldn’t stick.
Her mother collapsed forward, blood trickling over her lips.
* * *
Kobb clutched his head. A mass of slate-grey flesh lay where Reverend Gannon had stood, ichor seeping from the rents covering it. Beside it, drenched with sweat, Anserth raised her sword then drove it down through the body. After swaying for a moment, the Inductor collapsed to one knee, head bowed.
Raising his Courser, Kobb looked around. Haelen and Anessa, stood nearby, staring at the creature with the same confusion he felt.
“Katrina… I saw Katrina.” Haelen sagged, tears washing away his puzzlement. “She said her kidnappers brought her here.”
“My Ma wasn’t…” Anessa hiccuped.
Kobb patted Anessa on the shoulder. “For me, Reverend Gannon. Somehow, that creature made us each see it as the person we missed the most. Maybe more than just made us see them. If the Inductor hadn’t killed it, I’d have gone off alone with it.”
“And me.” Anessa swallowed hard, then frowned. “How’d you know to kill it, Serth? Why didn’t it look like someone you missed?”
The Inductor glanced up, eyes like stones. “It did. I heard her calling me, so I staggered out. She’d this story about how the rest of you’d gone into the other tent to give us some privacy. I’d pushed my emotions away when we talked about needing a sacrifice, though, so whatever the beast did to inspire trust didn’t work. You all leaving me with someone you’d never met didn’t make sense. The blade went in just like last time, but that changed once the illusion stopped.”
Anessa’s eyes widened. “You didn’t know it wasn’t… not till after you’d stabbed her. But that’s—”
Kobb’s gaze snapped to the edge of the circle as a voice like shattering metal swallowed Anessa’s words.
A man-shaped shadow emerged from behind one of the Stones, seeming to tear apart then reform rather than cross the intervening space. “Greetings, Reverend. I lost the opportunity to make your acquaintance at Raveth, but—”
Demon! Kobb raised his Courser and unleashed blast after blast. Each only passed through the gaps between shadows as the abomination flickered closer.