Previously on Seven Stones: After recovering consciousness in the remains of Haelen’s camp, Anessa convinces him they need to set out after Reverend Kobb. They find the village of Alcston apparently abandoned. Investigating a mouldering hut, Anessa discovers a comatose woman with both legs eaten away.
Anessa felt hands lifting her up and helping her to the door. Staggering out of the hut, she began to hiccup, each spasm burning her throat. Not caring about the mould, she slumped against the swollen planks. Maybe Haelen had been right about needing more rest.
Haelen stepped into view. He held out her pack and then patted her shoulder. “There’s no shame in it. Seeing that and not feeling ill; that would be a bad thing.”
“What… what did that?” She forced the bile down. “How is she…?”
“Korha venom is powerful. Some tales speak of them felling mighty warriors with a single blow. All I could do was stop her from suffering further.”
Anessa took a deep breath, and then regretted it as the scent of stagnant water flooded her nose. She’d thought coming with Kobb would be an escape from Morth, a chance to get away from the east-siders and their sneaking around. Instead, the world was the senseless, dangerous place Dad kept trying to protect her from.
Which made Haelen’s actions all the more impressive. Coming with her might only be repaying a debt to Kobb, but spending his time and precious resources helping a complete stranger…? “We should search the rest of the village. What if there are more villagers?”
Haelen gazed at her for a moment. Whatever he saw made him smile, but it soon faded. “I don’t have the herbs to wake them up. So killing whatever did this might be the only way. I only met the reverend briefly, but I think this would have spurred him on. Which means—”
“—either he got here already and needs help, or we don’t have time to wait for him.” Anessa studied the churned ground. “Those might be hoof prints.”
She unslung her crossbow. After a moment, Haelen drew his eating knife; it didn’t make him look any more dangerous.
The mist thickened as she led the way through the village, adding to the impression the tendrils clutched at it. As she slogged on, the huts showed ever greater signs of abandonment swollen wood giving way to rot and collapse. Only the squelch of their feet broke the silence.
The ground underwent similar degradation, cloying mud melting into foul-smelling soup. Finally the mist took away what little chance she had of identifying even hints of tracks.
Peering around, she realised she was no longer sure if the dark shapes in the near distance were fallen huts or rotten trees. “How could anyone live here?”
“Cities don’t have the same discomforts, it’s true, but they aren’t necessarily safer. And they have a lot more rules. Some people prefer hard freedom to a feather bed they’ll never own.” Haelen hawked into the mud and then swept his arm around. “But I reckon this foulness came to live here after they did.”
“So, it could be—” In the distance, something cried out. She held a finger to her lips and waited.
A few moments later it came again. “Does that sound like a horse?”
Haelen shrugged. “It’s something to head for.”
Eyes constantly drawn in every direction by half-shapes in the fog, Anessa crept forward. The ground resisted each attempt to lift her boot yet slid away each time she put it down.
Filthy water spattered her back and Haelen cried out. Turning, she saw him sprawled face down in the muck. She scanned for threats, but nothing seemed out-of-place. “Haelen?”
He rolled over and sat up, spitting out mud and water. After running his hands over his legs, he picked up his knife. “Caught my foot on something. Left ankle twisted. Doesn’t feel broken.”
She slung her crossbow and helped him up.
His face paled under the filth as his weight shifted onto his legs. Wrapping his arm around her shoulders, he pointed at a twisted form squatting in the murk. “Help me to that tree.”
Anessa wrapped her arm around his waist and started to take his weight. Just as she thought she had it, her right foot slid sideways. Shifting his grip on her shoulder, Haelen managed to stop her falling but almost went over himself. Eventually, stopping almost every other step to change their positions, they reached the tree.
Thin limbs jutted randomly from a bulging trunk. Sap oozed from cracks in bark the colour of lead. Only the few leaves clinging to the least unhealthy twigs convinced Anessa it wasn’t some armoured beast.
Haelen tugged on branch about the thickness of his wrist. “Should take my weight.”
“I’m not leaving you in the middle of a swamp.”
“I’m not asking you to.” Haelen drew his knife. “But I can barely walk. I certainly can’t run. I’d only make it worse if we’re attacked.”
“No.” Haelen hacked at the branch. “By the time you get to the village and back it might be too late. You need to carry on. If I can just get the branch off, I can limp back. Maybe take a look in the other huts so I’m not completely useless.”
Anessa’s thoughts refused to settle. Haelen didn’t seem like he would last long at the best of times; with a twisted ankle, he was just prey. But he was right about how long it would take to help him back. The swamp seemed threatening, but all they had actually encountered was mud and fog. Could she really let him go back on his own?
The branch tore away under Haelen’s knife. He wedged a fork under his arm. Tufts of limp black leaves waved above his head. It should have been comical, but it only made Anessa feel more nervous.
Haelen took his arm from around her shoulders. The branch sank deeper, canting him sideways, but he stayed upright. “Anessa. You need to get going. I’ll be fine.”
Unsure what to say, she raised a hand in salute and trudged into the mist. A few moments later she looked back, but the fog had already hidden him from view. Heart heavy, she tried to locate the cries of the horse.
Moving first one way and then angling back as the sound shifted, she advanced. Now she was certain it was a familiar whinny. One of the shadows shifted in a way the mist wouldn’t explain. Hoping she wasn’t giving away the advantage of stealth, she sloshed as fast as she could towards it.
A loud neigh echoed ahead. The fog grudgingly revealed the silhouette of a horse.
Finding firmer footing, Anessa jogged forward. Somehow an island of solid ground existed within the filthy soup. A squat tree jutted from the middle. Falcon, straining against the reins hitched to its branches, stood at bay on the far side.
Caked with mud and wreathed in mist, he raced towards her. Spittle exploded across her face as the reins pulled his gaping mouth up inches from her.
Kobb had been here. Gritting her teeth, she stepped closer with her palms raised. “Friend. I’m a friend.”
When he didn’t attack straight away, she sidled over to the reins. Between Falcon’s pulling and the soggy air, the leather had swelled, but she managed to work the hitch loose. As soon as she did, Falcon headed for the mist.
Dogs ran to their masters; maybe horses did too. Unslinging her crossbow as she ran, Anessa struggled after him. The mist shredded around his passage, adding brief maws to Anessa’s imaginings of lashing tentacles. Peering through the murk, she thought she saw a flash of purple but it was gone before she could be sure and did not return.
Falcon surged towards a vague darker shape ahead. And then tumbled sideways as a tentacle seemed to lash out before dissipating again.
Anessa dropped to a crouch. The murk swirled but revealed only more mist. The shadow, the size of an adult man lying on the ground, remained still. She waited.
Falcon didn’t move. Eyes flicking at every shift in the fog, she crept forwards.
The horse was still breathing. But he seemed smaller, lying in the swamp. She patted him on the flank. The same bitter smell as the hut filled her nostrils and thin layer of green mould clung to her palm.
The mist shifted around her, but no attack came. Her legs began to feel weak. Fighting down a yawn, she desperately peered through the murk. The creature should be ahead of her, so why couldn’t she see it.
Her crossbow drooped in her hands. She needed a plan, but the cold seemed to eat away at her thoughts. She slumped next to Falcon. Now he wasn’t looming over her, she realised his coat was soft like a pillow.
She couldn’t hold back a yawn. The mist swirled and thickened ahead, obscuring the slumped shadow. Falcon’s flank felt comfortable under her cheek. Apart from the mould, it was just like…