Previously on Seven Stones: Kobb rescues Haelen Lok, a healer, from the Eaters. Together they manage to slide to unconscious Anessa out from under the remains of a wall. Reaching Haelen’s camp, they discover the Eaters have stolen or destroyed most of it. Haelen convinces Kobb to sleep while he tries to revive Anessa. When Kobb is awakened by nightmares again, Haelen reveals a possible cure; but obtaining the key ingredient will involve great risk.
Anessa felt woozy. Everything was dark. She could smell rotting leaves and a sharper scent like crushed grass. The last thing she remembered was the wall tumbling down, and something hitting her in the stomach. Something moved nearby. Sounded like the fight was over.
The darkness wasn’t uniform: there were specks of light here and there, like an old feed sack over a window. Kobb wouldn’t put a bag on her head, so… So she needed to see what was going on. She twitched one arm and listened.
Something clinked, not metal, pottery maybe? Then the sound of whatever was out there moving away. Easing her right arm over her stomach, Anessa winced in anticipation; and then paused again when she wasn’t racked with pain.
Something rough was wrapped tightly around her stomach, but her arm moved freely, so she wasn’t tied up. Someone started to whistle a tune.
She froze. Whoever it was clearly didn’t fear detection. Which was another reason it couldn’t be Kobb. Two really, given how impossible the image of him whistling cheerfully seemed. If she was careful, the noise would cover her movements. She brought her hand up to her face.
Hessian, and some sort of mushy substance. A ragged edge hung just past her ear. Whatever it was, was only draped over. She could lift a corner enough to see, and then work out what to do next.
The whistling continued. The scent of crushed grass strengthened as she lifted the cloth. Tilting her head, she could see the back of a man, clad in a filthy tunic, crouched over something. She peered around. Broken glass, potsherds, and torn cloth filled the clearing. Her crossbow lay on a pile of cloth six feet away. Which, still woozy and moving over broken glass, was five feet too far.
That rock on the other hand was already within reach. She peeled the cloth all the way off her face and eased herself into a crouch. All she had to do was—
Pain jabbed through her left leg. Biting down on a shout, she collapsed sideways.
The man sprang to his feet and walked towards her. “Anessa?”
As he crouched down next to her, she swung the rock as hard as she could.
He swayed backwards without effort. “Calm down. I’m a friend. Haelen Lok. I’m a healer.”
“He’s fine. Dealt with the last of those creatures. Rescued me from them.” Haelen extended his hands palms, facing her. “Can I touch you?”
Anessa stared at him. The wooziness made it hard to concentrate, but he could have killed her already if he wanted and he did know her name… She nodded.
He ran his fingers along her legs and across her stomach. “Any sickness? Blurred vision?”
“Pain on my leg. And my head feels wobbly.” This didn’t seem so bad. The gentle brushing of his fingers was quite relaxing.
He grabbed her left foot and wrenched while pressing down hard on her knee.
Anessa spasmed, shooting upright. Now her stomach hurt.
“Cramp. The poultice kept you still while you slept.” Haelen’s fingers pressed along her leg. “Should be better now.”
Blinking furiously, she realised the pain jabbing along her leg was gone now. “Thank you… I think.”
“You were lucky. The blast stunned you, but the rubble only bruised you.” He pressed on her shoulder. “You need rest though. The reverend won’t be back for several days anyway.”
Anessa sagged back. Kobb had gone on without her. Although, she couldn’t blame him; she nearly got killed by Eaters the first time, missed half her shots the second time, and then got knocked out. “Did he say where he was going?”
“Those creatures broke most of what they didn’t take. I found enough to tend you, but…” Haelen glanced away. “I needed Korha venom.”
Anessa stared at him. She recalled fragments of the stories Gramma told, before Dad found out and forbade it. “They’re only a myth.”
“Some of the tales are pure myth, but the beasts are real enough.” Haelen rested a hand on her shoulder. “And that’s all they are, beasts; dangerous I’ll admit, but not some dark force that can’t be stopped.”
Anessa stood and staggered towards her crossbow. “Maybe. But we have to help him.”
“You need rest.”
“You said he would be back in several days. I can get a night’s sleep on the way as easily as here. But I’m not lying around while he goes into danger. You don’t have to come.”
“And spend all my time worrying you’d collapsed in a ditch? I shouldn’t have let him go in the first place.”
Scared each moment might be the last chance not to be too late, but aware that any of Haelen’s surviving possessions might be the difference between saving Kobb’s life and not, Anessa forced herself to help him assemble a bundle each.
Between her aching everything and not moving above a walk for fearing to attract unwanted attention, the first day’s travel was less than she had hoped. But they were going in a straightish line; Kobb might be faster on horseback, but Haelen assured her the road would take Kobb miles out of his way.
Next morning she awoke cold but less stiff. Convincing Haelen to eat as they walked, they spent another day squeezing between twisted trees before collapsing onto a patch of the least rotten vegetation they could find in the gloom.
An icy drizzle, filtering between branches too close to admit more than tatters of light woke them. Tired and unsure of which side of dawn it was, they trudged on.
Feet numb and clothes clammy, Anessa realised it was lighter ahead and the ground sloped down. The brambles gave way to half-rotten undergrowth layered over slimy soil. The rain, taking full advantage of the wider gaps between dying trees, drove into her face. But it was lighter ahead.
They stumbled and slid through the trees, emerging on the edge of a ragged field. Clumps of grey leaves lay in rough lines through the mud. On the far side huts sagged, wrapped in tendrils of mist.
“Alcston,” said Haelen. “Unless someone else was mad enough to build on the edge of a swamp. If the reverend stayed on the road, that’s where it ends.”
Spurred on by the thought of news, or even finding Kobb still there, Anessa forced her way across the cloying mud towards the nearest hut. “Halloo the village.”
The mist sucked away her shout, returning the village to silence. She considered the nearby huts. Shutters, too warped and swelled to be usable, covered the windows and no smoke rose from the chimneys. But some of the doors stood part way open. Banging on the nearest, her hand became coated in a greenish mould.
Haelen squelched into sight. “Looks abandoned. We should move on.”
Anessa peered into the murk. “I think there’s someone asleep in there.” She shoved on the door until the gap was wide enough to slip in. A bitter smell hung in the air. Quiet breathing came from a bed in the corner. She made out a head above a crumpled blanket. “Hallo.”
Apart from a slight snuffle, they didn’t react.
Anessa walked over and reached out to gently shake them. More of the mould coated the blanket. Jerking her hand back instinctively, she caught a fold, sending the blanket sliding to the floor. A woman, curled up inside a tattered nightdress, lay on a decaying bundle of straw.
Reaching out again, Anessa tugged on the woman’s shoulder. The woman rolled onto her back but didn’t wake. Something wasn’t right.
The woman should have woken up. Why hadn’t she woken up? Then Anessa realised something worse. The woman was on her back now, so why weren’t her legs visible?
She bent down. The bitter smell grew stronger.
The woman’s legs ended below the hips.
Murky light spilled across the bed as Haelen forced the door wide.
Anessa’s legs gave way. The woman’s legs ended not in the smooth stumps of deformity or an old accident, but in torn flesh and bone. Flesh and bone that—unlike her skin and bedding—bore no sign of dirt or decay.
Flushed with life, yet did not bleed.