Previously on Seven Stones: Kobb brings the Eater back to the stone circle but lets it go. Seeing everyone has turned against him, the man flees the circle with only the clothes on his back. Kobb explains the Eater has told him what the stones are.
Before Anessa could work out what to ask first, Haelen started chortling. The wind, slipping between the stones, undercut his mirth.
Pushing his hood back, Haelen took a deep breath. “No wonder you didn’t bring the Legions with you.”
Anessa glared back and forth between the two men before settling on Haelen.
“He actually believes,” said Haelen, sputtering. “He truly believes.”
“But, don’t everyone?” Anessa slung her crossbow. “I mean most folks don’t—”
“—keep bothering the Maker?” interjected Kobb, eyes sparkling.
Anessa flushed. “Weren’t going to say that. Meant most folks don’t expect him to pay attention to their doings. We kept the rituals and always put out the share each Maker Day.”
“I’m not offended, Anessa.” Kobb’s mouth quirked. “Botherer isn’t the worst I been called. But Haelen isn’t talking about believing in the Maker. Not exactly.”
“There’s two types of Botherer.” Haelen winked at Kobb. “The civilised ones, who do good works, maybe serve beside the Legion, and take the respect for it; and the ones who’ll give up their last crust because it’s better to die giving a blessing than live.”
“You trusted an Eater because it talked pleasant?” Anessa stared at Kobb. “But… that’s… why would you…?”
“Why did you stop Aycock? Taking a stranger’s part against your people?”
“Weren’t right what they were doing” She felt heat flow up her face. “’Sides, most people don’t like east-siders anyway, so weren’t a risk.”
Kobb pursed his lips. “And people don’t like Korha either. So no danger people would disagree.”
“What… no… Couldn’t just leave you! Not without doing something.”
“And I am most grateful.” Kobb smiled.
She realised she’d done it too: risked her own life for a stranger, not once but over and over again, because it was the right thing to do. She could have turned back after the Eaters attacked the first time, or given up when the Korha nearly killed her, or… “But why’s that so funny? You both— Wait! What do you mean the Eater told you what the stones are?”
Kobb’s grin died. “The stones anchor a… a river of power between here and somewhere else. That’s why they move around in my dreams. They’re supposed to be connected in a certain way, but the rituals got old. Might even have been weakened deliberately. The power’s leaking out into the world. Distorting it. Bringing old evils back, like the Korha.”
“So you’re going to perform the rituals?” asked Haelen. “Rebuild this gate before it gets worse?”
“I will.” Kobb straightened. “But first we need to visit the places the power went.”
Haelen drew himself up. “If a person gets a sweating disease, you try to cure it; you don’t just keep mopping their brow. If we fix the gate, the evil will go away.”
“It isn’t that simple. Performing the rituals might make the evil part of the world again, not send it back. And even if I do work out the rituals, they might not work unless the evil is gone. I need to—”
If he worked out the rituals? Anessa looked Kobb hard in the eyes. “I thought the Eater told you what to do? And won’t the evil just keep coming back?”
“The rituals aren’t Skithai. That’s why the shaman couldn’t deal with this. It knows what’s wrong, but only someone attuned to the rituals can do it. I managed to feel the barrier; I’ll have to do it again with the whole circle.” Kobb rubbed the pendant at his throat. “As for the evil? Evil only thrives unopposed. Stand up to it and it won’t return.”
“Maybe there’s something in the notes we found in Alcston?” Haelen inclined his head towards the tents. “Our predecessor might have left something helpful, too. He did work out how to raise the barrier.”
“We need the barrier anyway,” said Anessa. “We aren’t the only ones interested. If we take turns watching, we might keep a couple of people out, but that’s all. And, soon as we leave, someone could just stroll in. If we can control the barrier, we don’t have to worry.”
Kobb shook his head. “A Courser’s a terrible weapon, but it’s controlled. But the barrier isn’t. It scoured the ground. It’s dark power.”
“You said the rituals faded,” said Haelen. “Maybe that’s why it isn’t controlled? At least review the notes. That map look like it showed—”
“You’re right.” Kobb sighed. “We need to find out more. We’d best start with whatever’s in those tents.”
Anessa chewed her lip. Dad had always been on at her to practice her letters more, but hunting didn’t make her head ache; and she was plenty good enough at reading for inventory and ordering. “One of us should stay out here. Just in case.”
“Another fine thought,” said Kobb, relaxing. “You’re the one who knows about these things, Haelen—”
Haelen went pale. “Wouldn’t say I knew—”
“None of us do,” said Kobb, sighing, “but you’ve studied the papers we found, so you’re the closest we’ve got. Look at whatever notes he left before we scared him off. Anessa and I’ll take a look around the circle. Make sure he doesn’t come sneaking back before we have a better plan; and between her eyes and my dreams we might see something helpful.”
Haelen pinched the bridge of his nose and then strolled towards the tents.
“So, what does invisible evil look like?” Anessa forced her mouth to stay level. “I was distracted last time.”
Kobb snorted. “I figure you’ll recognise it when you don’t see it.”
The wind gusted as they entered the circle, raising goose pimples on Anessa’s arms. She swept her eyes around the tree line as they moved toward the centre. She didn’t actually expect an attack, but focusing on the forest reduced the feeling that the stones shifted in the corners of her vision.
But didn’t help with the guilt. Whatever Kobb said about being glad she was here, he’d come most of the way before he even met her; and Haelen was more useful as a healer and for figuring all the creepy stuff. Sharp eyes were all she had, and here she was going out of her way not to look.
A distant voice whispered in her right ear.
Anessa snapped her head sideways. Nothing.
Something stroked the left side of her face and whispered nonsense.
She slapped her face. A tendril of hair tickled her fingertips. Letting the tightness in her shoulders slip away, she tucked the stray hair back in place. Just the layout of the stones making the wind twist and murmur.
Deliberately moving her hand off the turf-hook, she glared at the nearest stone. Same height as her father and about as narrow. No cause to be scared of something you could wrap your arms around. So what else was there?
The stone sparkled slightly in the sun. That was no use. They already knew it did crystally things, like Kobb’s Courser did. The shadow was still pale. That weren’t right. But it weren’t giant mist creature not right. Nothing to be afraid of.
Ignoring the impression of words in the wind she moved closer. Now she took a proper look the stone weren’t even that scary. The patterns were pleasant. Didn’t look that firm in the ground either. Might take a run up, but she could probably shove it over. Something grabbed her shoulder.
Spinning round, she fumbled for her crossbow. A dark figure loomed over her.