Previously on Seven Stones: Kobb collapses. Unable to carry him across the clearing without being seen, Anessa’s only option is to take him deeper into the tower. While scouting, she realises that the green glow filling the corridor makes people sick. Finding a room free of the glow, she drags Kobb in. But before she can hide two insects enter. Her crossbow fells one. With no time to reload, she readies her turf hook.
Anessa pointed the tip of the blade at the remaining insect. Even with her arm straight out, what had been a comforting weight on her hip seemed to add little to her reach.
The creature hovered for a moment above its fallen companion, then shot into the corner of the room.
Eyes straining against the gloom, Anessa turned to keep her blade between her and the creature. Why didn’t it attack? If it was an animal, she’d think it was nervous; why would an insect-thing be scared? She’d get one swing and then— She squeezed her left hand hard enough to hurt. No use dwelling on what happened if she missed.
The creature drifted deeper into the shadows and settled on the wall. Without light glinting off its body, it was almost invisible.
Anessa tensed in anticipation of a lunge. It still didn’t attack. Keeping the turf hook up, she crouched and reached for her crossbow.
Before she could load it, the creature flew at her, wings whirring.
She leapt to her feet, and swung her blade.
The insect flicked sideways, avoiding her weapon, then returned to the shadows.
It only attacked if she posed an immediate threat. Flying creatures didn’t need a ladder, so their prisoners must come in. No wonder it was waiting: why risk being hurt when help would arrive soon.
Knuckles white on the turf hook, she lunged for the creature.
Flicking its wings, it jerked away, leaving her cutting empty air.
As she twisted to face it again, purple flared across the room. The insect tumbled from the air, tendrils and legs twitching.
“Needed surprise.” Kobb’s Courser clicked against the floor as he slumped back.
Anessa slung her weapon. “You’re all right.” Gathering up her crossbow, she reloaded before crouching at his side.
“The green light makes us sick. I had to drag you deeper. I couldn’t—”
“Good thinking.” Kobb holstered his Courser. “Help me up. We need to find whatever the tower protects.”
Kobb’s weight bearing down on one shoulder, Anessa shuffled across the room. As they approached the exit, she slowed. “It’s too narrow to go side-by-side. Stay here. I’ll—”
“Whatever’s there needs both of us.”
“At least wait while I see what’s ahead.”
Anessa steered him over to the wall. Once he was propped, she crept along the corridor. As she followed it down, a faint tinge stained the walls ahead. After a half turn, they opened out into a room filled with pale green light. Odd metal objects lay scattered across the floor. On the far side, another green-lit tunnel led deeper still. Braving the glow for a moment, she sneaked forward enough to check the near corners. No ambush, but no shadows either. Deeper meant slogging through the light. She trudged back.
Kobb’s skin was pale and clammy, but he no longer leaned against the wall. “Is it safe to go on?”
“No insects. It’s full of green light, though. The corridor goes deeper. I’ll go on. You make sure they don’t sneak up from outside.”
“No. Most of the pain’s in my head. Must have knocked myself out when I fell. Caught me by surprise. Now I’m expecting it, I’ll cope.”
Anessa stared at him. He wouldn’t lie to her. But wasn’t his entire life about thinking things were better than they seemed? That and— “Shoot the light. We don’t need it to see, so destroy it.”
Kobb studied the wall. “A Courser doesn’t do much to inanimate objects, so it won’t damage the tower. It might unmake whatever magic makes us ill, though.”
Creeping forward until her stomach lurched, Anessa knelt. The sound of their breathing vanished as purple flashed past her shoulder.
When it faded the green glow returned. Another bolt washed across the far wall, again with no effect.
“It’s no good,” Kobb said. “Without some idea of what the magic is, I’ve nothing to aim at.”
“What if you shoot everything?”
“Might work. But each time weakens me. Another two, perhaps three, times and I’ll loose consciousness when the light touches me. If we go through now, we might make it to something important.”
Hoping Kobb was right, Anessa moved on. Her attention shifted, one ear cocked for signs of Kobb faltering and the other for approaching insects. Aim wobbling with every step, she crept deeper. After more than a complete circle, the corridor opened out into a room the width of the tower and over ten feet high. Several thin metal frames jutted from the floor. Beyond them, cloaked in shadows, a massive circular carving covered the far wall.
Anessa straightened. “The magic doesn’t reach the—”
Grabbing her shoulder, Kobb stopped her lunge forward. “Don’t move any closer. Don’t look at it.”
She spun away. As she did, the carving shifted in the corner of her eye.
The light dimmed. Her urge to throw up faded. But, she found no comfort as a scent of rotting hair gusted past.
Anessa’s neck ached from the effort of not looking.
Purple flickered and flashed, then cut out as Kobb collapsed to one knee.
She turned. The carving flowed and twisted. Dark tentacles like old fungus, each of different length and shape, stretched from the depths.
Anessa loosed a bolt. Soaring towards the centre of the carving, it disappeared into the distance without ever reaching it.
“Run!” A fit of coughing ran through Kobb, dropping him to the floor. He raised his Courser, but his arm trembled too much to draw a bead.
The tentacles groped further along the wall, revealing they were the tips of thick, oddly jointed limbs.
Anessa stepped back, then set her shoulders. She couldn’t leave Kobb. Dropping her crossbow, she dived to the floor next to him and grabbed his hand. “I can’t use it, but I can still aim.”
Kobb’s head sagged to one side, and his eyes were almost closed, Then, one corner of his mouth twitched.
She pointed the Courser at the mass of limbs. “Now.”
Purple wreathed the thickest tentacle.
Twisting and flailing, it shrank toward the centre of the carving, then began to grow again.
The second blast made the limb pull back further before it groped out once more; but had no effect on the other tentacles.
“It’s not dying.”
Kobb took a jagged breath. “Can’t die… Pain…”
Hoping he meant enough pain made it flee, she moved his aim to the longest tentacle. “Now.”
Shifting between shots, they hit it again.
This time the limb didn’t reach out after it withdrew, and the creature’s groping slowed.
“It’s working.” Anessa aimed at another fleshy mass. “Again.”
Wreathed in purple, the limb folded inward, the others following it.
As the carving stilled, the green glow blinked out in the corridor.
Anessa rested Kobb’s arm on his chest. “It’s gone. We did it.”
After a moment, Kobb’s eyes opened. Inching his hand up, he settled the Courser back in place.
Something clanged in the distance. A breath later, a judder ran through the floor.
Anessa yanked Kobb to his feet. Wrapping one arm around his waist, she half carried him to the mouth of the corridor. Part of the wall crashed down behind them as she thrust Kobb forward.
Somehow, he found the strength to keep upright. Floor bucking, they stumbled through the tower. Despite making no attempt at stealth, it seemed longer than the way down; but finally a tint of daylight coloured the metal ahead, and they staggered onto the top of the gantry.
Villagers converged from every direction, limbs spasming.