Previously on Seven Stones: Anessa and the others withdraw from the palisade without being seen and head for the second gate. However, the sight of the mutated horses triggers a panic attack. Anserth kisses Anessa to shock her out of her fugue, then stalks away before Anessa works out how she feels. Kobb discovers the probable source of the evil is behind a further iron-sealed fence. Before they can plan a way past it, the monsters approach.
Anessa staggered back a step as Kobb and Haelen sprinted forward. Why didn’t the gate close? The creatures’d get them all. There’d be nowhere to run. Why wasn’t Anserth— Where was Anserth? Haelen said she went to watch the horses, so why— Unless—
The thundering in her ears drowned the sound of hooves. Anessa stared at the creeping gate. Anserth was outside. She’d be trampled.
Sweat oozing across her brow, Anessa dragged herself toward the gap. She could do this. She didn’t need to get that close. Even if she couldn’t kill a horse, a bolt in the leg’d— Her fingers met air.
The dregs of her courage drained away. She’d been holding her crossbow as they retreated. She must have dropped it when she panicked. She stumbled to a halt.
Kobb and Haelen added their shoulders to the effort. With a groan, the gate began to move faster.
The hooves grew ever louder, but the gap was mere feet.
Two aching breaths later, Anserth sprinted in. Spinning on her heel, she threw herself against the gate.
Anessa stumbled forward. She was safe.
The pounding stilled as a dark shape appeared. Head tilted, the horse halted and peered at the closing gap, a gap already narrower than its shoulders.
Almost as if it could think. Anessa wasn’t sure if that was more or less terrifying than the creatures being stupid.
The beast no longer visible, her legs regained their strength. She jogged toward the others.
With a thud, the gate stopped, only inches from closing. Faces creased with effort and boots scrabbled as it groaned open again.
Sodden earth tearing beneath his feet, one of Anserth’s companions fell. The remainder strained, but the gap widened.
A rain black snout shoved through the hole, followed by muscular body.
Snatching a knife from her belt, Anserth leapt.
The beast’s head swung. Bone and muscle slammed into the Inductor, hammering her to the ground. Hooves glinting despite the gloom, the monster loomed over her.
Purple fire swallowed the shouts and ragged breathing.
Rearing up, the horse twisted away from Kobb’s attack. The gate juddered as the beast shouldered through the gap and galloped into the darkness.
Back slamming against the rough wood, Anessa shoved. As the gate crashed shut, the ground beneath her feet began to shudder.
Anserth stared at the planks. “Time to pray, Reverend.”
“Gate’s closed. Won’t that—” Anessa realised what the Inductor already knew. The gate lacked a latch or bar. Wood trembled behind her as the creatures nuzzled the other side.
They couldn’t keep them out. They were going to die.
“Something’s odd.” Haelen looked at Kobb. “They’re not howling or charging. And that one you attacked fled.”
Rain faded to drizzle, heaving flanks and scuffing hooves replacing the hissing. The gate juddered again as another beast shoved at it.
“Hunger.” Kobb patted his Courser. “Whatever’s been done to them makes them stronger and harder to kill. Once their blood lust’s sated, thought, they must return to thinking more like animals; and animals avoid pain.”
“So, they’re coming here because it’s home?” Anserth pressed herself beside Anessa. “You prepared to bet your life they won’t kill us the moment they get in? Of course you are. Same as I would.”
Anessa gulped at the thin air. They weren’t talking about letting the creatures in… were they?
“What choice do we have?” Kobb swept his arm around. “Without something to wedge it, they’ll get in. If we risk it now, at least we’ll be less tired when they do.”
Anserth snorted. “You’d deny me my only chance to die in my sleep? Right. Anessa and Haelen run for the inner fence. Rest of us hold as long as we can, then follow.”
A head start’d… mean her friends got killed first. Anessa shook her head. “Needs all of us to keep it closed. You’d be—”
Anserth twisted her around by the shoulder and stared into her eyes. “Do what you’re told. You’re too valuable to me. No one else can get that inner gate open.”
Anessa’s feet tangled as the Inductor shoved her away. Catching her balance, she ran, Haelen trying to keep pace. Her thoughts churned. She’d be useless if the horses broke through, but leaving felt as bad. Behind her, the sound of people straining mixed with that of flesh slamming into wood.
Moments later, the thudding ended. Boots pounded across the ground.
Gaze locked on the gate ahead, Anessa pressed her fingers to her pendant. “It’s Anessa Tanton. I know finding the Blessing’s my task, but if you could give me some sign…”
The sound of a sticking door mixed with hooves.
Her legs pumped harder. The creatures were inside now.
Iron wrapped across her. Her feet left the ground, Anserth’s arm pulling her close.
Her stomach lurched; partially from the impact, but mostly from the realisation Anserth’d carried her before, not Haelen. Torn between remaining rigid to avoid more contact and curling deeper into the embrace, Anessa barely noticed the beasts weren’t attacking.
She still hadn’t worked out what everything meant when Anserth lowered her to the ground. But she didn’t step away. “Thank you. And for last time.”
Anserth didn’t step away either. “You’re important to—”
“Whoa.” Kobb tugged on Falcon’s reins. “Not killing us don’t mean they’re friends now.”
Anessa looked past Anserth. The last of the horses ambled in. Definitely not friends. But not frothing horrors either. The gate slammed shut.
Anessa peered through the herd. “How’d they…?”
“A little trick of mine.” A plummy voice came from above them.