Previously on Seven Stones: Kobb and Anessa reach the Duke’s hunting preserve without serious incident. After convincing the guards that they have been sent to bless the animals, Kobb transports the two of them and the Tan-Sorda to the Stones. However, when they arrive, a strange voice echoes out, calling Anessa by name.
Eyes sweeping the shadows, Anessa unslung her crossbow. How’d an Eater got in the circle? And where was it?
Kobb pressed down on her arm. He sucked in a rattling breath, then spat. “It was the beast.”
“That thing speaks?” Her back bumped the stone.
Kobb wiped his lips with the edge of his robe, leaving a dark stain on the cloth. “The shaman did say it carried messages to their god.”
“A mask worn in darkness hides a different face.” Despite being in the open, the Tan-Sorda’s voice echoed. With a creak, it dropped onto all fours. A hint of hot metal wafted through the air.
Crossbow angled down but not slung, Anessa stepped to the side to give herself more room. The Eaters’d attack Sallis if the beast wasn’t returned; letting it kill her in the hope they didn’t anyway’d be stupid, though.
“Answer me, Tan-Sorda.” Kobb pointed his left arm toward it, stole draped over his wrist. “What do you serve?”
“Do servants act unknowing? I am—” The creature’s head lashed from side-to-side. Black fluid splashed as skin cracked and healed. Voice shifting between words, it spoke without echoes. “We… Creator… Destroyer…. Taken…. Given…” Rising onto its hind-legs, it cackled and wept, the sounds overlapping.
Anessa braced her crossbow, eyes searching for signs of weak spots. “What is it? How’s it…?”
“I think the Skithai meant carrying their voices in the literal sense; that they’ve somehow put their hopes and fears into a single creature. Like a living prayer.”
“But it knew my name!”
Kobb frowned. “We’ve seen the corruption twist things before, and we know something’s holding the power in place. Echoes of us travelling through the Stones must’ve been bound in with the prayers.”
“How do we get them out?”
“Shame we left Haelen.” Kobb glanced at the tents. “He’d have mentioned anything obvious he knew, though; and we don’t have time to go through all those notes. The Skithai said the Tan-Sorda goes to the holy place. So, finishing the ceremony’ll probably purify it.”
“And if it doesn’t?” The creature’s chest was the best bet; a bolt through the heart dropped anything. “Doing something in the middle of an army’s likely to get us killed.”
The Tan-Sorda flickered and reappeared several feet further away. “How many lives buys a child’s sleep?”
Anessa shivered. It moved like a shaman. And the things it said. Had it expected to be attacked? Did this make it better or worse to try now? Could she even hit it? The Eaters’d know how to keep it still, but—
“Doesn’t matter.” Jaw set, Kobb staggered closer to the Stone. “If we don’t risk it, we doom Sallis.”
“At least stay here till you’ve got your strength back.”
Kobb frowned for a moment, then shook his head. “We made a deal with one shaman. Doesn’t mean all of them’ll wait. And we know they’ve placed scouts. The Duke will send guards out to track the people who stole his prize; if they find a Skithai…”
They’d try to capture it, or just kill it. And the deal wouldn’t mean pig shit in the face of that. “At least rest on my shoulder, so you don’t collapse.”
“A fair exchange settles debts. And a gift to seal the contract.” The Tan-Sorda spoke in a single echoing voice. Except, now she listened, it wasn’t an echo; it was several voices speaking almost as one.
Kobb rested his left arm across her shoulders, and chuckled. A slight damp catch at the end robbed the laugh of the little mirth it had. “Sounds like it agrees with me.”
Hot metal and sap flooded Anessa’s mouth, followed by bile. Her guts lurched upward as something squeezed her entire body.
She stumbled as a large rock slammed into the sole of her boot, then to the side as Kobb’s weight yanked at her. Pain spiked across her chest as she stopped him crashing into the Tan-Sorda’s flank. One arm on his waist, she braced her legs and looked around.
Clouds covered the moon, hiding details and turning the forest’s edge to a wall of shadows. But it seemed familiar. The Stone had returned them to the clearing. Haelen’s guess was right. “It worked. We—”
Kobb coughed, dark fluid spattering her robes. His head sagged forward.
He straightened, reducing the weight on her side. Face pale even in the darkness, he gave a weak smile.
“Are you…? How do we get the creature…?”
Before he could reply, harsh creaking syllables cut the air.
Anessa looked at the Tan-Sorda, then realised the voice’d been more natural and further away.
Staff clutched in both hands, an Eater shaman strode from the tree line. Something about it suggested it wasn’t the same one as before.
“We did it.” Anessa waved her free arm at the Tan-Sorda. “We brought your beast back.”
The shaman whirled his staff and uttered more jagged words.
Anessa shoved Kobb behind the Tan-Sorda as dozens of Eaters stepped from the tree line, spears raised.
Brow furrowed, Kobb drew himself up. “We fulfilled our promise. We come as friends.”
Something slammed into Anessa’s back, pitching her forward and sending a stab of pain along her right arm. Twisting as she fell, her crossbow tumbled from her grasp.
More Eaters lined the edge of the clearing behind them. Closer to these, she realised what the difference was. In place of the simple gaps other Eaters cut in their masks, these had carved gaping maws and jutting fangs.