Previously on Seven Stones: Kobb and the others defeat the compound’s inhabitants. Haelen discovers notes about the transformation of the horses; however, they are written in a language neither he nor Kobb recognises.
Anessa helped Haelen into a chair, then glances toward the pen. “Plummy Voice ain’t screaming, and I can’t hear chewing. Maybe, he ain’t dead.”
Kobb peered over the edge. A breath later, he shook his head. “Best not look.”
The desire to look tugged at her. Kobb wouldn’t have said it ’less the death was messy, though. And she didn’t want to spoil Anserth’s bravery with a memory like that. “Ain’t Anserth good at finding answers? Maybe she knows what the words mean.”
Kobb and Haelen frowned at each other.
“Why don’t you trust her?” Anessa looked back-and-forth. “She saved me from Plummy Voice.”
Kobb huffed. “She took the opportunity that presented itself. Whether—”
Anessa spun on her heel and marched away.
Halfway down the stairs, she admitted she hadn’t trusted Anserth either till recently. Going back meant more not being able to help, though. Finding Anserth might mean finding something useful and proving she was an ally.
Dead bodies, several stripped of weapons and armour, lay in the yard. The surviving guards slumped in a cage, Anserth’s companions guarding them. Beyond, a wicket gate hung open. Anessa strode through into another fenced area.
Several large huts surrounded a fire pit. She wandered closer, trying to work out which felt most like the Aycock’s; crude construction aside, she couldn’t see any similarities, though.
Anserth emerged from the nearest building. “Anessa?”
Anessa stared at the Inductor. Her eyes looked tired, but her shoulders were unbowed. Dirt smudged the end of her nose; the nose of a person who rushed in to fix things instead of standing around. Simplest way was to just ask her about pushing Plummy Voice over the edge; that’d set Kobb’s doubts to rest.
Anessa jogged to meet Anserth. “Kobb said…” No, Kobb was only looking out for her. Wasn’t right to put the blame on him. “That is, I wanted to… say sorry about calling your nose lopsided.”
“But my nose is lopsided.” Serth’s hair shifted as she tilted her head. “And I am a heartless hag when I need to be, so don’t—”
“You’re not a hag. “ Before she lost her nerve, Anessa rose up on tiptoes and pressed her mouth over Serth’s. Lips melted together. Tingles flooded through Anessa as she wrapped herself closer.
At some point, body rigid, Serth broke the kiss. “You shouldn’t…”
“You kissed me, so I owed you one.” Anessa brushed her thumb across the smudge. “Don’t want to be in your debt… Serth.”
“If things were…” Serth stepped away, leaving a cold patch on Anessa’s chest. “We need to end whatever evil’s loose here.” She strode toward the wicket gate.
Anessa stared at Serth’s retreat. Had it all been a ploy the first time? For a moment, she’d kissed back, though. Why didn’t…? Thoughts swirling, she jogged after… what was she?
Serth’s gaze remained straight ahead as she marched past the cages and up the stairs. “Reverend. The immediate area’s secure—potential occult risks aside. No evidence of the greater scheme.”
Something sounded missing in Serth’s voice. Anessa resisted the urge to wrap an arm around her.
“We haven’t unravelled his secrets yet either. I’d half-hoped you’d find an obvious glowing circle or such.” Kobb snorted. “Only half-hoped though.”
“Can’t you track the power? The same way you found this place?”
“It’s not that easy.” Kobb stared at the mountains. “The Maker Blessed us with a starting point, but we must—”
“He means we only get a rough idea,” Haelen said.
Anessa stepped past Serth. All this hiding things from each other was wasting time. “Enough! We’re trying to do the same thing, so why don’t… Doing the same thing. Why did the guards have a gong?”
Serth frowned. “It’s not common, but units do use them to keep time while marching.”
Anessa shook her head. “When we arrived, they thought one of those beasts’d escaped. Those riders beat a brass shield to call it back. So why’d these guards have a gong ready?”
“Good question. The horses were already in the pen. So they didn’t need to call them.” Haelen flicked through his pile of papers. “Can’t see a gong, or anything that looks like music. But, maybe there’s one tune to summon them and another to hold them back.”
“Gongs aren’t subtle instruments.” Serth frowned. “Could you play different music?”
“They put out meat, too,” said Kobb. “The smell of flesh attracts the beasts. But they’d want a way to not be attacked. The sound protects against the horses somehow rather than driving them away.”
“Maybe more than protects.” Serth gestured at the pikes scattered across the floor. “The first group had swords and crossbows. So why were these armed with pikes? It’s not a good weapon for one-on-one combat, or for stairs and corridors. But, the other advantage it has is reach. The reach you’d want against something that could cripple you with a single blow.”
“But the beasts shook off my Courser. An iron point might not even break the skin…. Unless the gong suppresses the resilience as well; makes it possible to kill them.”
“Easy enough to confirm, Reverend. We ask the—” Serth spun and stared into the compound. “Where are the gong-bearers? And why’d none of us think of them straight away?”