Previously on Seven Stones: Anessa and Kobb discover a strange portal at the heart of the insect’s lair. Before they can investigate, a horrific creature reaches through. Unable to kill the monster, they hurt it enough that it withdraws, closing the portal as it goes. Deprived of the magic, the tower begins to collapse around Anessa and Kobb. Stumbling out, they find the possessed villagers advancing from all directions.
Anessa drew her turf hook. “We dealt with the monster. Why are the people still…?”
“I don’t think it brought the insects here.” Kobb straightened and unsheathed his rapier. “It think they summoned it.”
The gantry rocked as the closest villagers pulled themselves up it.
Anessa’s weapon drooped. “We can’t—”
The platform lurched beneath them. A jagged tearing sound drowned out the clatter of metal. Fragments of tower spun inward, leaving the back of the gantry unsupported. Anessa dived towards Kobb. Wrapped around him, she bounced and jolted to the ground.
Agony ran along her spine as she crashed onto the tangled mass of wood, but she kept her fingers gripped tight on the handle of her turf hook.
Kobb rolled off her, groaning.
Teeth clamped against the pain, she jerked up and flicked her gaze over the clearing.
Each villager rocked in place, eyes fixed on the pit where the tower had stood. As one, they fell forward, insects rising from their heads. Mandibles clacking and spasming, the creatures spiralled upward in a mass.
As the swarm rose above the line of the trees, the setting sun caught them. Their flight lost rhythm, but the insects surged higher, ichor and chitin raining down. Moments after, the first of them plummeted to the ground.
Anessa curled tight, arms wrapped around her head.
An age later the sound of impacts ended. She eased herself up. Chunks of odd flesh and twisted shell coated the clearing, vapour rising. A few villagers twitched. After forcing down a wave of nausea, she crouched over Kobb. “They’re dead… all dead. Why did they…?”
Kobb wiped ichor from his face and rose to a sitting position. “They failed their god. Perhaps, they sought to atone.”
A god? But wasn’t there only one god? “That thing was a god?”
“Not a true one.” Kobb brushed his fingers over his pendant. “But they worshipped it as one.”
Why would anyone…? “We should fetch Haelen. Can you stand?”
“My clothes took the worst of it. I’ll do.” Kobb picked up his fallen rapier and clambered to his feet.
Something niggled at Anessa. Kobb was bareheaded. She peered around, but couldn’t see his hat. As it didn’t seem to bother him, she scooped up her turf hook and led the way through the forest. Despite their victory, she found herself creeping, afraid of attracting attention.
Haelen crouched over the injured woman, muttering. He whirled round as she approached, fear melting into relief. “You’re alive! I heard that noise and thought…” He leapt up and drew her close.
“We… I don’t really understand, but we stopped them.” Anessa eased herself out of his arms. “The villagers collapsed. We need to…” She trailed off as Haelen’s grin faded.
“I couldn’t save her.” Haelen’s head drooped. “All the life drained away. The other captives… I don’t think…”
Anessa looked past him. The woman sprawled, cheeks sunken and eyes staring.
“The creatures left by choice after we destroyed their portal.” Kobb rested a hand on Haelen’s shoulder. “It might make the difference.”
Haelen raised his head, jaw set. After rolling his shoulders, he nodded once and picked up his bag. “You’re right.”
Anessa jogged after him as he strode to the clearing. A breath later, he stumbled to a halt. “I didn’t realise there were this many.” He bent over the nearest villager, then straightened. Shaking his head, he repeated his actions with the next captive. “Their skulls broke when they collapsed.”
Moving on, he crouched and examined a boy. “He’s still alive. But he’ll not last the night without shelter.”
“What if we used this?” Anessa pulled a handful of rock from the nearest cart. “We wrap him up. If we reach the settlement—”
“Him, maybe.” Haelen ran his gaze around the clearing. “But how many others won’t survive without us? We need to take them all. And there’s only one way to do that.”
Kobb frowned. “Transporting the three of us was hard, don’t know if I can transport more.”
“You said the insects had a portal here,” said Haelen. “You returned from Alcston with just someone’s attempt. Won’t a working one make it easier? You’ve got to try. We can’t just leave them.”
“We’d better get this wreckage cleared.” Kobb walked closer to the pit. “If I’m going to, I want to be as near as possible to where the portal was.”
“Thank you, both.” Haelen rose. “I’ll check the others while you work.”
Anessa moved to join Kobb. The shadows cast by the trees turned the tangled wood into a single mass, but the first two baulks came free as they pulled; and whatever happened when the demon left, took all the metal. She’d just decided the job’d be easy when Kobb shouted for her to stop.
Clambering down, he reached under a mess of planks. Metal scrapped as he tugged something free. After fumbling again he pulled out a small bundle. He thrust his rescued hat onto his head and climbed out. The brim drooped, the crown was lopsided, and even in the twilight, Anessa could see the fresh stains.
Kobb grinned. “I think yours did better than mine.”
She gaped at him, as he held out her crossbow. It looked intact. She half reached out, then let her hands drop. “I don’t reckon I should. I… When we were in the tower and you were sick, I asked the Maker to help you, and I didn’t have nothing proper to give so I tried to offer a bolt, but I couldn’t break it. But you got well anyway, and crossbow’s the only thing I’ve got that’s real valuable, so I reckon Maker took it for you, and ain’t right to take it back.”
Haelen gave a choked sobbing noise that turned into a chuckle. “There you go being a bad influence again, Reverend.”
Kobb stared at Haelen, the hat covering his left eye spoiling the effect, before starting to chortle.
After looking back and forth between the two of them for a moment, Anessa grabbed the next baulk and yanked. It weren’t right. Just because she didn’t understand things was no reason to laugh at her. She jumped as Kobb touched her elbow.
“We’re not making fun of you. It’s the idea of someone seeing all this and still saying I go bothering the Maker when I shouldn’t,” said Kobb.
“Suppose, that is a bit mad.”
“Exactly. The Maker wants us to do this.” Kobb held out the crossbow again. “This could have been crushed; but it wasn’t scratched. The Maker wants it to be used.”
Anessa stared at it for a moment, before lifting it from his hands. Kobb was right: first the tower, then the gantry, and it didn’t need even restringing. She peered up at him sideways. “So, what does it mean if a man’s hat gets smushed?”
Kobb snorted and gripped on the baulk.
Twilight was spent by the time they reached the bottom. Kobb settled into a cross-legged position in the centre. “I can feel it. Might be a rough trip though.”
The ground fell away beneath Anessa. Flashes and odours assailed her, before something slammed into her chest.
A warm, wet breeze gusted across the side of her head. She rolled over, then froze. A giant maw, filled with blocky teeth hovered inches from her face.
“Falcon.” Kobb wrapped himself around the beast’s snout. “Good to see you too.”
While the horse was distracted, Anessa scooted backwards and leapt to her feet. Five villagers lay on the churned snow nearby. “It worked. We saved them.”
Haelen eased himself upright. “We dealt with the first problem. They’re a long way from safe, though. Set up beds in the second tent. I’ll watch over them and study the papers, while you two head out.”
“We three.” Kobb swept his arm around the patchy snow. “Falcon’s uncovered what grass there was. We leave him here, he’ll starve.”
Or eat the tents. Along with everyone in them. Giving the beast a wide berth, Anessa stumbled into the sleeping tent. What to use as bedding?
By pressing every table and empty sack into service, she managed. Exhausted, Anessa collapsed until morning.
Still tired, she wandered in the direction of hot oats. Slumping beside Kobb, she pointed at a stone. “That one.”
“Are you sure?” Kobb stared at the fire. “Perhaps you should stay and help Haelen. Falcon and I’ll investigate.”
“I’m fine.” She lowered her head to the spoon. “Wake up once I’ve had some porridge.”
Bowl empty, she stood. Another portion would set her up, but there were five more mouths now. After collecting her weapons, she trudged over to Kobb. “Sooner we’re off, sooner we’re back.”
Staring at her for a moment, he nodded. Falcon’s reins in one hand, he led the way to the next stone.
The day unravelled around her.
Yet, the foulness was less this time, and her breakfast stayed down. She looked at the forest. Rain oozed through the gaps between branches. She’d been here before. Boots squelching, she jogged up the rise.
The ground dropped away to the west, trees thinning. And at the bottom of the hill, Morth. The stones had brought her home.