Previously on Seven Stones: Anessa realises the gongs the guards carried aren’t used to summon the horses. Based on the guard’s choice of armaments, Serth suggests the clang makes the beasts vulnerable to ordinary weapons. However, before they can investigate further, they realise that no one has seen the gong bearers since before the fight.
“They probably hid when the battle started.” Anessa poked Serth’s arm. “You’re scary sometimes. We’ll find them.”
Serth shook her head. “Can you describe them?”
They were…Their clothes were scruffy, and… Anessa’s forehead creased. One had… They’d been toward the middle of the corridor, behind the guard with the droopy moustache. She’d seen their faces, so they must have been at least the same height as… the gong was on a frame, though, so they might have been standing on that. “I paid more attention to the guards.”
“Might make sense if it were just you.” Serth quirked an eyebrow at Kobb and Haelen. “But none of us remembering they were even here until we specifically thought about the gong?”
“She’s right,” said Kobb. “Anessa might be distracted enough they faded into the background. Haelen’s a healer not a fighter, so maybe he was distracted too. I’m tired, so possibly details slipped my mind. But Inductors are trained to pick up subtle clues. There’s no way Anserth wouldn’t recall them at all. Unless they make people forget.”
Anserth spun on one heel and glared toward the compound. “But how’d servants—?”
“I don’t think they were servants.” Haelen pointed at the tray of wine. “Three goblets: too many for just the noble; not enough for him and us. If he was a noble at all. The right accent and clothes and you could order anyone who did chance across it to leave.”
Kobb began to pace. “Make sense. Building a compound and engaging mercenaries takes money, though. More than bandits or cultists tend to have. More likely he provided the gold in exchange for learning their secrets.”
Anessa stepped into Kobb’s path. “Does it matter? Shouldn’t we start looking?”
“It’s not that simple,” said Serth. “We need to know more to find —”
Anessa shook her head. “We forgot, but we noticed them when we came in; they can’t hide if we’re looking at them. So we need to start hunting before they just wander away.”
“I know you want to do something. I do to.” Serth patted Anessa on the elbow. “But we can’t rush in. They can’t leave the area without meeting our rear guard anyway.”
Anessa sagged. Waiting felt wrong, but then she’d never been any good at making plans for the future; she’d always just— Serth’d pushed Plummy Voice off and hoped it’d work out; why was she so cautious now? Anessa chuckled; even if she turned out to be wrong, it’d be enjoyable. Wrapping both arms around Serth’s neck, Anessa kissed her hard.
Serth’s hands clamped her close. Their mouths seemed to melt together.
After another few breaths—just to make sure—Anessa tilted her head back. “Kobb, Haelen! Something’s messing with the way we feel. Like the Stones—”
“Stones?” Serth stared at her, cheeks flushed. “What—?”
Anessa struggled free. “Later. We need to start searching.”
“She’s right.” Serth strode for the stairs. “We stood around while they do Raveth knows what!”
Kobb winced, then nodded. “Give me your arm, Haelen. We’ll be two old fools together.”
Even with Haelen’s injuries, the four of them almost ran to the wicket gate.
Now she knew something odd was happening, Anessa couldn’t imagine how she hadn’t seen the nearest hut was a different wood. “That one.”
Kobb gasped. “Anesh Oak. They built an entire building of it.”
“Go.” Haelen shoved Kobb. “I’ll keep watch.”
Anessa’s stomach lurched as they opened the door. The inside of the hut looked cleaner than anything in Alcston, and her nose said the air smelt of mud and horses, but it felt like pitching into a slurry pit. Swallowing hard, she stepped in behind Kobb.
Odd patterns, again similar to the ones in Alcston, covered the walls, seeming to throb like veins. Her hand clamped around the hilt of her sword. “This is evil. We need to destroy it.”
“Agreed. But we need to take time.” Kobb forced a grin out. “Actually need to, this time. Break the wrong part of the pattern and the power will surge out instead of fading away. We know where it is now. Once we’ve found the cultists, we’ll come back.”
Anessa stepped toward the door. Apart from a couple of small cupboards, the room was empty. So wasn’t anywhere for someone to hide. If they weren’t destroying the hut, there was no reason to stay. Acid burning her throat, she staggered out.
Even the wave of horse-shit didn’t spoil her gulp of air. Slumping to the ground, she tried to rub the pain from her forehead. Then froze. Fresh divots clustered around the door, like someone’d make hurrying while carrying a heavy load; and they weren’t puddled with water, which meant they happened after it stopped raining.
Gaze flicking along their path, she broke into a sprint. “They’ve gone for the front gate.”
Serth and Kobb caught up as she reached the gate. A waft of copper and shit slapped her as they shoved it open.
Three horses lay in the stables beyond, blood pooling around their torn throats. Beyond, another gate hung wide, revealing the area that had held the refugees.
And beyond that, an open gate framed two galloping horses, their riders crouched low.
Anessa lunged forward. Her crossbow was just outside. If she—
Serth tugged her back. “I had the same thought; they’d be out of range before you made the parapet, though.”
Parapet? Of course, some of the guards had had crossbows. Serth was right though. “At least we know where they are.”
“True. And the Inductor’s people will stop them soon enough.” Kobb peered at the corpses. “Brutal, no signs of ritual, though, like as not done to slow pursuit.”
“Reverend!” Haelen limped over, several sheets of paper clutched in his hand. “Thought I’d be useful and search their workshop. I found more notes, but these are different.” He leaned against the fence, fingers pressed to his side. “I recognise the handwriting.”