Previously on Seven Stones: Tremaine Aycock imprisons Kobb and Anessa in his father’s house and informs them they will be sacrificed at midnight. Dereck visits Anessa offering to let her go free if she accuses Kobb of crimes, then storms out when Anessa tells him what Tremaine has threatened. Kobb suggests Dereck likes Anessa but doesn’t know a better way to express it. The two prisoners try to release their bonds. Before they can, Tremaine and two cronies return.
Anessa twisted her head away. Being in near Heb at all had been bad enough, but the narrow corridor focused the stink, making the scent of rotten meat almost solid. As he dragged her forward, she threw herself back and forth, trying to pull free of Heb’s grasp. She wasn’t sure what she’d do with her hands still tied; silent compliance hadn’t achieved much, though, and—if nothing else—recapturing her’d waste their time.
Hawking something that was—fortunately—too dark to make out, Heb lifted her off the ground and continued towards the dim light. Ahead, Tremaine lifted a curtain, increasing both the dirty glow and the stench of the burning fat. The spill of light revealed the second thug, the one dragging Kobb, as Coraed Wheller.
Still refusing to give up, Anessa flailed her boots against Heb’s legs. He grunted with each blow, strides now staggers, but followed the others through the curtain. Anessa’s struggles stopped as her gaze flicked around the large room on the other side.
Soggy mud stretched across the interior, and fat-filled lamps spattered light across damp wooden walls. A pit gaped in the centre, eight feet wide. Before it, several rough-hewn posts jutted up with lengths of dirty rope tied to them. And beyond, two filthy curtains hung over who knew what.
Kobb’s voice echoed. “Maker of All, make of me the vessel of your Blessings. Let your—”
One hand clutched to his head, Tremaine hammered his knee into Kobb’s gut. Pulling a rag from his coat, he dabbed at his nose and ears. New dark stains joined old dirt. Kobb’s words’d made him bleed. But how?
After one last wipe, Tremaine twisted the cloth into a rope. Forcing it between Kobb’s lips, he knotted the ends.
Anessa struggled to recall Kobb saying the same prayer before. As Tremaine turned, she realised it might not matter. She hadn’t needed special words in the insect’s lair, just the right ones. “Maker. We’re in a bad place, but ain’t nothing you can’t make good. So show me how to do it.”
Tremaine spun to face her. Eyes wide, he gave a throaty gurgle.
Anessa’s back straightened and her head rose. Before she could continue praying, Tremaine’s gurgling grew into a jagged chuckle. Holding his arms out and tilting at the waist, he gave her a shallow bow. He locked eyes with her as he straightened, laughter ending as if it’d never been. “You have spirit. He’ll enjoy the taste of that. But you aren’t special like Mr Kobb. He’ll be better than years of sheep.”
Tremaine strolled around the pit and drew the curtain on the right. “Promised you I’d let you see, though.”
Anessa peered into the alcove beyond. A shape, roughly human but slightly bigger than life size, squatted on a tall chair. The light was too poor for details; it looked rough like bark or hacked wood, though. Despite her plight, she felt a brush of disappointment; after meeting the Korha and the insects, she’d expected the statue to be more frightening.
Bowing once toward the figure, a full bow rather than the mocking ones from before, Tremaine drew the other curtain. A waist-high table filled the rear of a second alcove. Another roughly human shape, this one much cruder and only three feet tall, stood at the back of the table, flanked by two pots.
Tremaine bowed again then lifted a tray from in front of the statue. Something caught the light as he turned. “Tie them to the posts. One at each end so they’ve a good view.”
Heb wrapped his arms around Anessa’s waist and shuffled right. Despite her making no effort to kick him, his gait seemed stiff.
Meanwhile, Coraed dragged Kobb to the far post and slammed him against it. Kobb slumped as if only the post stopped him falling. Grinning, Coraed let go and reached for one of the ropes.
Rising up and twisting at the same time, Kobb drove his left shoulder forward.
Caught off guard, Coraed staggered back.
Pretence of exhaustion gone, Kobb spun, his right foot slamming down on Coraed’s.
Tremaine dropped the tray onto the table and sprinted around the pit.
“Best keep a good hold on you.” Keeping his left arm in place, Heb slid the other up until it rested on her chest. Hand fumbling at her jacket, he ran his tongue across her right ear.
Anessa shuddered and tried to twist away.
Breath roughening further, Heb moved round to give his hand better access.
But also opening a larger gap between their bodies. Reaching back, Anessa clawed her hands and squeezed.
Dirty trousers gave no protection. Gut kicking in, Heb jerked away, hands flying to his groin.
Fighting against his stubby fingers, Anessa pressed harder and tugged.
A ragged moan slipped from Heb. After another attempt to pry her free, he raised both arms and hammered his fists down. Unhampered by cord and much stronger, he tore her hands free.
Anessa stumbled forward, expecting an attack. But—instead of cursing or blows—only a creaky judder came from behind her. Before she could take advantage of Heb’s discomfort, a rank and angular shout spewed across the room.
The air around her fractured, cold absence oozing out of the cracks and into her limbs. As the chill clawed at her bones, she found she couldn’t move. Only the tight bands wrapped through her chest stopped her screaming.
Then something shifted in the right alcove.
A body halfway between flesh and wood unfolded and lurched forward. As the dirty light flowed across its face, the shadows made a new pattern. The eyes were more sunken and the mouth a jagged crack; the resemblance to Tremaine was inescapable, though.
“Your weakness angers Him.” The figure’s voice slid into her ears like treacle and sand. “If these escape, I will take His dues from you.”
“Rest, father.” Tremaine faced Wilber. “I’ll deal with this. You need your strength for later.”
“Foul lusts. Distraction. He demands punishment.” More sounds—but nothing Anessa’s ears accepted—followed. A sound like ice giving way came from behind her. Something thudded into the mud as Heb’s moans cut off.
“Mercy, Elder.” Coraed said, the tang of piss joining the stench of burnt fat. “We’ll—”
From the corner of her eye, Anessa made out Kobb twisting free of the distracted east-siders, and heading for the door. Only to stumble into view again a breath later.
Dereck strode into view, her crossbow braced at his shoulder.