Previously on Seven Stones: Kobb finds the Eater asleep in a hidden camp. Attempting to take its staff away, he lets a mask slip from the Eater’s bag. The Eater awakes, but seems unwilling to risk damaging the mask by attacking. Kobb uses the mask to force the Eater to follow him. The Eater reveals that Kobb and it share faith in the Maker.
Anessa crept forward. The ground was mired in rotten leaves and brambles, but the trees seemed less tangled ahead. Something small and dark exploded from the undergrowth, trilling and chittering. Then the wildlife fell silent. She raised her hand.
Eyes flicking from side to side, Haelen crouched down.
Tilting her head, Anessa strained her ears. No thrushes. Wind brushed the treetops. And in the distance, the clump of hooves. Keeping her crossbow up, Anessa eased towards the nearest gap between trees. A path cut through the forest, shafts of light spearing the murk. The brief yellow glint caught her eye.
Peering, she made out Kobb leading Falcon. As Kobb moved closer, she realised another, smaller figure walked beside him. Kobb had captured the Eater. She wasn’t sure how, but he had done it. “Haelen. It’s Kobb.”
Several small animals fled across the track as Haelen pushed his way through the undergrowth.
After sharing a grin of victory, Anessa stepped onto the path. Crossbow lowered, she jogged to meet Kobb.
The Eater still had its staff. She dropped to a crouch and brought her crossbow to her shoulder. “Drop the staff!”
Kobb dropped Falcon’s reins and raised his palms. “It’s fine, Anessa. It isn’t going to hurt us.”
“Then it won’t mind putting the staff down,” said Haelen, appearing beside her.
Anessa glanced up. He had his eating knife clutched in his hand, and his hood pulled up. He still didn’t look very threatening, but she appreciated the thought. When she looked back, the Eater had rested the staff on the ground and continued towards them.
Kobb bent and picked up the staff. As he straightened, a cloth sling bag swung round his neck, wrapping around his arm. Untangling himself, he took up the reins again and headed on.
Anessa kept her crossbow pointed at the Eater as it strolled forward. It didn’t seem to be up to anything, but it could be thinking anything behind that mask. “Far enough.”
The Eater inclined its head and folded into a sitting position. Despite not looking, it somehow ended up on a dry tussock.
“Doubt’s understandable,” said Kobb, spitting a plug of something into the bushes. “But, it’s given its word. Besides, I’ve got something it won’t risk.” He patted the cloth bag.
Anessa unloaded her crossbow and slung it. As she stood, Kobb threw the staff forward.
The Eater caught it without looking.
Realising as the crossbow cleared her shoulder that the Eater had had time to do something if it wanted, Anessa let her crossbow fall back into place. “Some reason you’re acting like a fool?”
Kobb moved closer. His movements were smooth and assured, but his eyes were more red than white. “My apologies. Not enough sleep. Keeping moving’s not too hard, but it’s not so good for remembering to explain. The dreams are back, Haelen.”
“The potion weakens over time.” Haelen sounded tense. “I didn’t expect it to happen so quick. I’ve the makings in my bag, but…” Haelen swept his arm around the forest, seeming to give equal weight to the grimy surroundings and Eater sitting nearby.
“I’ve lasted this long. I’ll last another night.” Kobb twitched his head in the direction of the stone circle. “No cause to dawdle though. You can brew a batch once I’ve kept my promise.”
The Eater rose to its feet and ambled into the undergrowth.
Anessa hurried after it. Kobb knew what he was doing—even if he was even odder than usual—but that didn’t mean she shouldn’t take precautions. The Eater might work out Kobb wanted to do more than take it back to the circle. She just hoped he found a way to tell her what his plan was before they got there.
The journey back to the circle passed uneventfully. But, between her constant fear that the Eater was going to do something, a fear Haelen seemed to share, and Kobb snapping awake several times during the night, she felt both limp and twitchy by the time they reached the circle.
Passing the reins to Haelen, Kobb strode forward across the blasted soil. The Eater strolled beside him.
Anessa followed, still unsure what the plan was.
Stopping at what Anessa supposed was the edge of the barrier around the stones, Kobb drew himself up to his full height. “Greetings, the camp.”
The wild-haired man emerged from a tent. Shading his eyes for a moment, he nodded sharply and disappeared between the stones.
Anessa flicked her gaze around as the quiet, normal sounds stopped dead. The air tasted of metal and, for an instant, the stones flickered purple.
Shoulders starting to quiver, Kobb strode forward.
Anessa resettled her crossbow for easier access and followed. Fortunately, removing the barrier was less dramatic than raising it.
Looked at head on, the stones looked barely taller than she was, but she couldn’t shake the feeling they loomed many times taller when she wasn’t looking. She glanced from side to side, trying to catch them shifting. Stumbling to a halt just outside the ring, she realised–even though the Sun was clear above the trees–the stones had only the wispy shadows of a cloudy day.
“Ha! Thought you could stop me did you, Skithai?” His tattered robe streaming behind him, the man strode into sight between two stones. “Why isn’t it tied, eh?”
“Came willingly, so didn’t see a need coming, “said Kobb. “And, it’s leaving freely, so would be a hindrance going.”
The man stumbled to a halt, eyebrows almost merging with his beard in puzzlement.
Anessa frowned in agreement. Leaving…?
Unslinging the cloth bag, Kobb threw it to the Eater. Eater raised its staff, crystals flaring, hooked the bag from the air, and sped into the distance.
Anessa grabbed her crossbow on instinct, but the creature was gone before she could aim. What was Kobb’s plan? Why—?
“You promised!” The man was almost puce between the thickets of hair. “You can’t break a promise!”
“Promised we’d bring it back. And we did.” Kobb pointed into the forest. “You want more, it went that way.”
“You… why…” The man staggered sideways, falling against a stone.
Anessa realised she couldn’t hear birds. Spitting the taste of iron from her mouth, she snapped her crossbow up to point at the man. “Move away. I can loose well before you do finish.”
The man eased himself upright. Glaring at her, he moved away from the stone.
“Sensible man knows when to cut his losses,” said Haelen.
Staring hard at Haelen for a moment, the man raised his hands in surrender. He smiled weakly and backed towards the tents. “I see how it is. I’ll get my things and leave.”
“Who knows what you’ve got hidden in there.” Kobb reached into his saddlebag and pulled out a sack of oats. “It’s not luxury, but it’s enough to keep you going for a while.”
The man’s gaze flicked around, settling on Kobb’s Courser. After tugging his robes straighter, the man snatched the sack and strode away south.
Anessa tracked his path for a while, before deciding he really was leaving. “What’s going on, Kobb?”
Kobb rested his back on a stone. “The Eaters worship the Maker. A sight better than most people. That, and it wanting to stop this evil as much as I do, meant we made a deal.”
“You made a deal?” She wanted to trust him, but it didn’t make sense.
Kobb sagged back against one of the stones. “It didn’t agree to come back with me only to keep the masks safe. It needed someone to do what it couldn’t. It told me what the stones are.”