Previously on Seven Stones: After a night spent shivering in the forest, the three arrive at the insects’ lair. A tall metal tower juts from the centre of a clearing and people of all ages wheel carts of some material to a smelter. Kobb manages to capture one of the workers. Before he can drag her to the others, a possessed man notices her abandoned cart.
The snow soaked through Kobb’s trousers, making his joints ache. He didn’t want to harm either of the villagers, but he wouldn’t be able to rescue anyone if the alarm were raised. No one else was close, for the moment. If he kept the woman silent long enough to use his Courser, he’d only have to kill one of them… hopefully.
The second worker halted, peering at the cart.
Kobb rolled more of his bodyweight onto his right side until the strain on his left arm from the woman’s struggling became almost unbearable. Torso broader than his prisoner, his shoulder bore on her arm, pressing it harder against the ground.
Twisting his head, he peered down. The gap between them should be wide enough for him to get his hand in, but he’d need to let go of her arm briefly; which meant he didn’t have time for a second attempt. Phantom pain rising at the expectation of what he needed to do, he returned his focus to the man.
His limbs moving out of rhythm, the second worker gripped the handles of the cart and lifted.
Kobb forced himself not to hold his breath, as the man staggered towards the smelter with his new burden. Hoping he wouldn’t glance back, Kobb rolled his weight evenly onto his prisoner’s torso.
The worker continued to shuffle away.
Taking a moment to feel his captive’s movements, Kobb released her left wrist and snapped his arm towards her head. She bucked, but his hand settled over her mouth before she could react.
His right arm curling in as he rocked sideways, he restored his grip on her torso.
The snow and needles cushioned her lashing enough that she only made a light scuffing noise. The possessed woman wrestled against him, but the insect’s willingness to harm its host couldn’t overcome both unfamiliarity with her body and Kobb’s experience. Rolling her over him, Kobb lifted his right knee and braced his foot on the ground. As she fought his throw, he reversed it.
Caught by surprise, she rolled against his thigh.
Bracing his left leg the same way, Kobb pinned her between his legs. With the need to clutch her torso reduced, it was the work of moments to lever them to a sitting position and then achieve a better hold.
Nevertheless, Anessa’s arrival was most welcome. Prisoner struggling in their arms, they crept to Haelen. Between them, they wrestled her to the ground, her head in a shaft of sunlight.
Leaving Anessa to hold in place, Kobb drew his Courser.
Not bothering to shave away her hair, Haelen made a confident incision on the crown of their prisoner’s head and pressed the drill straight in. Casting the knife away, he gripped the bit and twisted hard. With a wet crunch, it sank into her skull.
Haelen lifted the drill smoothly, and then hurled himself backwards. Anessa rolled away a breath later.
An insect, wings twitching, rose into the sunlight. Then the sound of fluttering ceased as Kobb’s Courser ended another life.
Kobb glanced towards the clearing. “Something’s very odd. Another worker noticed her cart, but just pushed it away.”
“Maybe the insects don’t think about things the same way we do?” Haelen eased himself up, face creased. “No sign they need the broken trees, yet the boars crashed straight through them.”
Anessa brushed damp needles off Kobb’s sleeve. “So, you think we could—”
Limbs flailing, the woman’s body curled inwards. Her head rose, then smashed to the ground.
Kobb leapt forward, attempting to brace her head, while Anessa threw herself across the woman’s legs. Eventually the writhing stopped, leaving the woman pale-skinned and flaccid.
After staring into her tawny eyes for a moment, Haelen ran his fingers over her torso and limbs. “Between whatever the monster did and those spasms, her body’s taken too much. She could survive, if she gets enough rest. But left alone in these conditions…”
“You’d better stay, Haelen.” Kobb forced his gaze to not even brush the bloodstains on Haelen’s tunic. “Anessa and I’ll have to sneak in without you.”
Anessa frowned. “We’re not going to rescue any more?”
“I was lucky this time. But I nearly wasn’t. Even both of us together, might not do it silently. And if Haelen’s wrong about how the insects think, they’ll notice a second worker going missing.”
Anessa loaded her crossbow. “Suppose. Soon as we deal with whatever’s in that building, we’re getting the villagers, though.”
“Definitely.” Kobb unsheathed his weapons. Assuming those people could be rescued: if the tower was the only thing keeping the insects here…
Anessa in the lead, the two of them sneaked towards the tree line. Workers, movements seeming wrong when seen from the corner of Kobb’s eyes, continued to cart something to the smelter. The centre of the clearing remained in sun, but the shadows of the trees stretched nearer to the middle than before. He leant closer to Anessa. “We have to cross soon.”
“They’re too close together. If we wait for one to leave, the next will see us. We need more shadow to hide us.”
“Trying to escape without the sun to protect us would be worse. If we left straight after a villager passes and keep moving, there’s time to get to the gantry. They don’t change pace or look back.” There wouldn’t be time hide a body before the next worker came rounded a corner, though. So, if they were noticed, the only option would be to kill everyone who saw them to keep the details secret.
A boy, tattered remnants of britches dragging behind his left ankle, shuffled into sight.
The moment he pulled level, Kobb rose. Having overcome the desire to ease each foot forward, he struggled against the contrary urge to move faster; an urge made stronger by Anessa’s swift yet silent advance.
His gait further disrupted by the cloth bunched around one foot, the child limped on, seeming unaware of their presence. Nevertheless, Kobb kept an eye on him, ready to use his Courser if needed. Attention divided, he failed to see the branch until it was too late.
Dry despite lying in a snowdrift, it collapsed beneath his foot with a sharp crack.
The boy slowed, head tilting back and forth.
Raising his Courser, Kobb brushed his free hand against his pendant. If the child didn’t stop, the sound of the snow under the wheels might cover Kobb’s footsteps.
Still creaking slowly on, the villager looked at one side of the cart then the other. Apparently satisfied, he returned to a faster stagger. Kobb walked to the gantry, eyes on the ground ahead of him. His neck itched, but if the child hadn’t glanced back then, he wouldn’t do it now.
Crouched behind the rickety frame of rope and branches, the two of them waited for the next worker to pass going the other way and clambered up. The gantry creaked and swayed, but they reached the top safely. A circular hole in the tower, small enough Kobb would have to hunch, spilled an insipid green light onto the platform.
Kobb rested a hand on Anessa’s elbow and pointed at himself.
Crouching lower, she pressed herself against the metal to one side of the hole.
The corridor beyond looked as narrow as the entrance. Waddling forward, knees bent so his gaze wasn’t forced down, Kobb stepped past the lip.
His stomach roiled, and a cold sweat washed over him. Bile filling his mouth, he tumbled to the ground, sight blurring.