Previously on Seven Stones: After Anessa Tanton saves Reverend Kobb from frontier justice, he agrees to let her accompany him on his journey further north. However, as they pause for a meal, mysterious forces attack from the forest shadows.
Reverend Kobb rolled sideways behind a stump and rose to a crouch, Courser and rapier in hands. A second hail of spears peppered the ground, but he couldn’t make who threw them. His eyes flicked from the shadows to Anessa and back. She seemed safe crouched behind a large boulder, and her crossbow was loaded. He could reach her in a few steps, but that could be what they expected. Or he could wait. “Tell me more of these Eaters. How do they act? Do they understand us?”
She ducked further down. “Don’t know. How can you be so calm?”
“Experience. If I understand, I am better prepared.”
“They’re evil. Sensible people run, or hide. Don’t know anyone who fought and lived.”
Kobb glanced at the shafts clustered in the ground. Two rains of spears, each from several directions. But not from all sides at once. So probably two or three groups circling the clearing, throwing twice. He burst from behind the stump, sprinted at an angle to Anessa’s hiding place, and dived for another rock. More spears thudded into the earth, barely missing him. Now for the risky part. He leapt up and ran hard at the tree line to the left of where one of the last groups of spears had come from.
He heard Anessa shout something but didn’t stop. Flattening himself against a tree, he silently counted to five and slashed sideways with his rapier, rolling around the tree after it.
Leaf litter scuffed as something jumped back. Kobb glimpsed a dark limb slipping into the shadows beneath a bush. Taking a step backwards, he let his Courser rise up. Short figures, barely distinguishable from shadow even from only feet away, leapt from the bushes on all sides, clubs raised. Crude wooden masks concealed their faces, but didn’t muffle their howling.
Letting everything other than his targets fade away, Kobb twisted at the waist. A heavy silence drowned their war cries as the Courser flickered. Kobb straightened as their twisted bodies stilled.
Anessa’s crossbow twanged behind him, followed by a whinny.
Kobb put his back to another tree. Four more Eaters ran towards Falcon from the far side of the track. Another lay on the ground, a quarrel jutting from its head. Falcon reared as the first creature approached, smashing it backwards with his hooves, but the others held back, spreading wider to flank the horse.
With no clear line of sight, Kobb sprinted towards Falcon, rapier raised. Whistling low then high, Kobb dropped and rolled left. Falcon charged right, exposing the end Eater. Kobb’s Courser flickered again.
Anessa shouted incoherently.
Glancing back, Kobb saw her pressed against a tree, knife in one hand and quarrel in the other, stabbing out at a group of five Eaters. She would soon be overwhelmed. But if he went back, the Eaters would all but certainly cripple Falcon. Cursing the choice, he trusted Anessa’s belief she was good enough to come.
He surged across the clearing and scythed down another Eater.
With one less threat to avoid, Falcon focused his efforts, hooves felling another Eater.
Anessa’s shouting cut off mid insult. Kobb forced himself not to react.
The last Eater, cautious of Kobb’s presence, missed his chance to close on Falcon’s flank, instead diving for a nearby spear. Kobb’s Courser took the Eater as his fingers wrapped around the shaft.
Hoping there weren’t more of the creatures lurking nearby, Kobb let himself fall to the ground, flicking his hat away as he fell. Rolling over he saw Anessa, left arm cradling her gut, slumped against the tree. Wide swipes of her knife held the Eaters back with her knife, but posed no threat.
Thankful he had guessed right, Kobb aimed the Courser up from the ground, taking three Eaters in the head in quick succession.
The last two broke into the forest.
Rolling onto his side, Kobb hawked and spat. Flecks of blood stood out against the muck. Death had started charging for his services a while ago. Scuffing leaf mould over the spit, he clambered to his feet. “Anessa?”
She pulled herself up the trunk by one arm, chest heaving but seemingly whole. Eyes flickering across the twisted bodies of the Eaters, she gaped at Kobb.
He crouched to clean his rapier on some leaves. Disbelief mixed with the immortality of youth. That must be how his face had looked when Certitude Gannon walked unharmed towards him through the tumbling bodies of the bandits. Kobb wondered if Gannon had felt as hollow inside at the sight of it as he did now.
“How…?” Anessa staggered over to her fallen crossbow. “Dad said you were dangerous. But, there were so many. And then they fell faster than I could count.”
“The Courser takes its strength from will, not metal or muscle. I but need to aim.”
“And could I…?”
Kobb stood. Only a few had the talent, and of those not all came into it. But, to come into it without training, to chance upon in nature the pattern the Courser formed could be like throwing bottles of brandy into a fire. He drew and span his Courser, offering her the butt. “I do not have the Blessing of Knowing, but the attempt will answer. Point it at your target like your crossbow, picture the target falling in your mind, and squeeze the butt.”
Anessa rested her crossbow on a rock and reached out. Her hand paused halfway, before snatching the Courser. Shoulders hard as oak, she thrust it towards a tangle of brambles.
Kobb felt some stiffness leave his neck as nothing happened. Walking forwards, he rested a hand on her shoulder as she thrust the Courser out for the third time. “You are not called to bear it.”
“Maybe it takes time. I could—”
“It brings only the hardest of Blessings. And asks much.” He slipped the Courser from her fingers and holstered it. “The reaction you saw this morning is not unusual.”
“But you could…” The fire went out of her. “You could kill those who challenged you. And all who disagreed. And then… How do you bear it, Mr Kobb…? I mean, Reverend…”
“You are not of the faith, and we are companions. Call me, Kobb or Absolution. And I bear it because those who accept the world as Blessing find it is so.” And because the alternative was worse than merely killing those who threatened him. “But the time for philosophy is beside a warm hearth with a full stomach. We should move on. It will be slow going from here on.”
“I thought you had not been this way before. And anyway, the track is passable for miles yet.”
“But the forest will not be. Especially for Falcon.” Kobb looked down at the remains of the Eaters. “If they do not come this close to the track then something has changed. I must at least rule it out before I move on.”
Anessa looked back the way they had come for a moment, before peering into the forest. “When they fled, they left some spoor. But, tracking them and finding a way for your horse will not be easy. Let us hope it is not an ambush.”
The day past noon and faded as she scouted both the Eaters’ route and an easier route that did not deviate too far. Finally, she returned grinning. “Some sort of ruined structure ahead. They camp there. I can get us close on foot, but your horse will make too much noise.”
Kobb patted Falcon’s nose. “Try not to get in trouble without me.”
Following Anessa, he crept through the undergrowth. The forest ahead grew lighter. He stopped beside her and peered through the bushes. The jagged remains of columns and walls jutted from the ground, defeated by the encroaching trees but fighting to the last. Five Eaters, one clutching a staff, clustered around a fire next to a mostly intact low building. The staff-bearer threw something into the fire with his free hand, turning the flames solid black. The air turned sour.
Anessa bit back a gasp.
Kobb drew back a little. “I can deal with that few easily. You should keep watch in case others return.”
“I can get us closer without noise. And it will be over faster with both of us.”
Kobb inclined his head and signalled her to lead the way.
Crawling left, Anessa lead the way to a point where a sagging wall concealed the fire.
Kobb crouched low and followed her across the leaf mould to the shadows beneath it. Pointing at each of them in turn, he signalled they should each go to opposite ends.
Leaning around the end, he confirmed the Eaters were still clustered around the fire. He raised his Courser and fired. The nearest Eater collapsed into the fire. The flames gusted up and then settled into reds and oranges.
The Eaters dived away from the fire. Kobb took another and saw a third collapse with a quarrel in his chest.
Howling a war cry, an Eater charged towards Kobb while the staff bearer began to chant.
Kobb took the charging Eater in the head.
The remaining Eater continued to chant. The fire blazed higher, making the air shimmer.
Letting everything else drift away, Kobb aimed the Courser and caressed the butt.
The Eater’s chant continued.
Kobb fired again, and a third time to no effect.
A quarrel spanged off a column several feet from the Eater.
Chant soaring in volume, the Eater pointed his staff towards Anessa’s hiding place. Chunks of stone exploded up. With a terrible creak, the wall slumped further.
Kobb fired as fast as he could will.
The Eater span its staff. Almost a blur, it disappeared behind a pile of stone. Leaping up again, it lashed out with its staff.
Kobb dived sideways as the wall shattered around him.