Previously on Seven Stones: Tremaine Aycock and the east-siders give Kobb and the Tantons until dark to leave Morth forever. After pretending to obey, Anessa and Kobb sneak around the village through the forest. Investigating the site of Wilber Aycock’s fall, they find the remains of a crude temple. However, someone has cut away the top of the altar. Kobb is certain it is connected to the evil, but the day is nearly over.
Kobb scanned the clearing again. Nothing visible suggested where the statue had been taken, and—even if there were clues beneath the bracken—searching would use up more time than it saved. “How would you sneak it into Morth?”
“Like Dad said, the Aycock’s supporters do most of the guard duty. And no one visits them unless they’ve good reason. So, ’less someone noticed you through the trees, easy to bring stuff in the east gate without anyone knowing.”
Kobb grimaced. He’d hoped the available routes might narrow it down. “So, once it was dark, they could move the statue anywhere they wanted. Anything else happen around the time Tremaine built his house?”
“Happened before I were born.” Anessa frowned. “Don’t recall, Dad ever mentioning nothing either.”
“If this place weren’t what he needed, Wilber could have moved the statue to his house any time he wanted. So, it seems more likely Tremaine built a hidden temple in his new house.”
Anessa headed for the path out. “Makes sense.”
After a final glance around, Kobb followed her. Eminently reasonable. Unfortunately, worship of dark powers wasn’t the act of reasonable people.
“What about Falcon? No way to sneak him in.”
“He’ll be fine there till night. If we’re not finished by then, well, hooking the reins over a branch is only a polite request not to wander off.”
Anessa pursed her lips for a moment, before heading along the top of the ravine. A few hundred yards later, they reached a thin track that Kobb thought he recognised from their journey in that morning. Blessings were strange things. If they’d swung south straight away, they might have passed close enough to the temple that they assumed the area wasn’t worth investigating.
Cutting across, Anessa slipped into the tangled undergrowth. Glad only his hat had lost its vim, Kobb pushed after her. The thorns grew taller as he pressed on, catching at his arms and chest; he was glad of the resistance as the hill sloped steeper, though.
Thighs aching, he broke free onto level yet marshy ground. The rain redoubled its attempt to reach his boots the long way round. Foul water oozed up with each step as he crept across to the fence.
As he pressed against it, Anessa lent in. “Watch box faces up the path, so won’t see us. Might hear something if we’re not lucky… I mean Blessed, though”
Kobb nodded, knowing as well as she did that his lack of skill posed the biggest risk but glad she hadn’t mentioned it all the same. Rolling the tension out of his shoulders, he squelched after her again.
The weather, defying the promise of shelter, seemed to become worse. The daylight melted into leaden slurry. If he hadn’t been looking for it, he’d have missed the spill of the watchman’s lantern altogether. Knowing a sudden gasp carried further and caught the ear more, he forced himself not to hold his breath as the two of them slipped through the gate.
Curtains of rain gushed over crude windows, both raising the spectre of unseen watchers and tempting Kobb to assume no one would see him. Trusting Anessa to avoid trouble, he focused on seeking tiny hints of more than mundane unpleasantness in his surroundings.
A few yards further on, Anessa ducked into a narrow alley between two houses. Glancing ahead as he followed her, Kobb say Dereck trudging along the street. An acrid whiff of decay mixed with something else rose up from beneath Kobb’s feet. Reminding himself that whatever it was wasn’t the worst his boots had faced, he sneaked deeper into the alley. Through the murk, he saw Anessa silhouetted against the far end.
Certain he was deep enough not to be seen from behind, he felt the tightness in his shoulders slacken. Only to return as light spilled across the street, before fading as a shadow stretched over it. Copying Anessa, he froze.
“Foul day, innum,” called out a voice ahead.
Anessa took a step back, before freezing again. The pounding of rain filled Kobb’s ears as the silhouette shifted. The light cut off. The inhabitant must have—
“No use skulking. I know es there.”
As Anessa backed towards him, Kobb turned and headed the way he’d come. Behind him, he heard a fist hammering on wood followed by heavy boots splashing through muck.
Before Kobb reached the far end of the alley, the sounds of pursuit grew to include a hue-and-cry. His hand dropped to the hilt of his rapier as he emerged. Dereck stood, half-turned, between the alley and the east gate. To the west, the first doors were already opening. Kobb flicked his blade free and spun into the middle of the street.
Anessa burst from the mouth of the alley, a hulking shape hard on her heels.
Spinning his weapon in the hope it would discourage her pursuer, Kobb considered his options. With another trained warrior, he could have held them off till it was too dark to fight; but, for all her competence, Anessa didn’t have the instincts to cover half the arc. Proving his concern valid, instead of using her lead to get clear, she turned on her heel and pulled her sword free.
The thug’s mouth froze in mid-bellow as he skidded to a halt, leaving himself open to attack.
Anessa struck with the flat of her blade. But, whether through inexperience or memory of the hunter’s head shattering, she pulled the blow at the last minute.
Showing no similar hesitation, the hulking villager swung one fist at her face.
She twisted away, but not fast enough. Instead of her cheek, the knuckles caught her ear. Still upright, she lost her bearings for a moment.
The thug raised his fists and lunged forward.
More east-siders approached from all directions, most clutching tools or farm implements. Kobb adopted a more defensive stance. He could fend the other villagers off or protect Anessa, not both. As long as she—
Anessa’s opponent slammed her blade aside with one shoulder and slammed his other fist into her stomach.
Legs folding, she tumbled backwards.
Kobb’s free hand settled onto his Courser as the thug snatched up her fallen sword.
“No!” Dereck shook off his surprise. Goggling for a moment at all the people now staring at him, he swallowed hard. “I mean, Dad will want to talk to them.”
The hulking east-sider twitched Anessa’s blade towards her, then lowered it to his side. Sticking it through his belt, he leered down at Anessa. “Your face, girl. Young Aycock’s right. Wouldn’t end you here.” He gave a phlegmy chortle. “Might wish I had though.”
Kobb sheathed his rapier and raised both hands. They might be obnoxious, criminals even, but the only one he knew was corrupted was Tremaine. He couldn’t deal with this many without leaving at least a few dead or close to. And unless the east-siders tried to kill someone first, that would be murder.
“Tie their hands.” Dereck lacked his father’s air of authority, but the east-siders rushed forward anyway. “And take the Botherer’s weapons.”