Previously on Seven Stones: The three adventurers reach a circle of stones in the middle of an area blasted clear of all vegetation. Kobb discovers an invisible barrier created from the same power as his Courser. His efforts to break through attract the attention of a dishevelled man who claims to have raised the wall to protect himself from Eaters. To prove they aren’t thieves, they agree to the man’s demand they bring him the leader of the Eaters, alive.
Anessa watched the man stride back into a tent. His accusation still rankled, but she supposed anyone would be rude if they had been attacked by their allies. Not that he shouldn’t have expected it: making a deal with Eaters.
She turned slowly on the spot. After facing the Korha, the prospect of Eaters didn’t seem so terrifying. And, whatever raising the power meant, it had cleared the forest back hundreds of feet in every direction, so there wasn’t much danger of an ambush; which was lucky, because she’d need all her attention to find a trail with the ground scrubbed clean. “Least we know what to expect from Eaters, so it’ll be easier this time. Bigger problem’s finding them.”
Kobb frowned. “Last time, we were killing them not trying to capture them, and we almost died. And a Courser only kills; even if I get the chance, I can’t shoot the Eater.”
“We worry about capturing it after we find it,” said Haelen. “If it’s interested in these stones, it’ll probably stay close enough to watch.”
Anessa swept her arm around the expanse of bare ground. “Hope so. Mid-afternoon’s past, and there’s hours of searching to find a trail even before we follow it.”
“Maybe not,” Kobb turned to face the stones. “Last time, they attacked from a place of strength with minimal flanking and fled quickly. If we find the dead, we find the trail.”
“Best start further out, though.” Anessa unslung her crossbow and strode away from the circle. “Don’t much fancy blundering into whatever’s killing everything.”
The soil puffed and cracked beneath her feet, sending up a faint dusty scent. Sweeping her gaze from side to side, she scanned the tree line for anything odd. Not that she expected to see the Eaters at this distance, but no one ever got killed for paying attention. After a brief pause to be sure she was well away from the stones, she began to move sunwards around the clearing.
After a moment, she stopped again. “Eaters can’t throw a spear this far, Haelen, so you might as well rest your ankle.”
“A kind thought, but no cause to risk it without need.” Haelen raised his right foot, and then rose up on the toes of his left foot. “Wouldn’t be much of a healer if I couldn’t shake a sprain.”
Anessa nodded. He couldn’t believe sitting up there would make him a target. But she understood his desire not to spend more time on Falcon. Resettling the turf hook on her hip, she moved off.
With the sky cloaked in leaden cloud and night creeping up, she had to strain to make out differences in the dirt. Finally, in the distance, she noticed several paler patches. So far, she hadn’t seen a stone much larger than a couple of fists, so was probably more than boulders. “There.”
“Sharp eyes, Anessa.” Kobb clapped her on the shoulder. “Maybe this won’t be so hard.”
She grinned. A small voice suggested Kobb was only keeping their spirits up, but it felt good to have someone recognise her skills. “We ain’t found it yet. And if Haelen’s right, Eaters are watching, so they’ll likely be expecting us.”
After taking a long look at the shadowed forest, she led the way towards the paler patches. She could make out darker patches like masks, but they looked wrong for dead bodies. It took her several more yards to realise it was the way they lay: unlike the dead geese, the Eaters’ limbs jutted at odd angles and twisted like they had too many joints.
“Only six dead?” whispered Haelen. “Are we going to be facing most of the tribe?”
“There’s more than six dead.” Kobb pointed back towards the stones.
Anessa peered through the half-light. There were slightly paler patches if you looked for them, but they didn’t have the twisted lumpiness of a body. Easy enough to get confused in this light, though. Especially if your eyes weren’t sharp. Not that Kobb was old… he would just be tired. Glad the murk would hide her flushed face, she crouched beside one of the bodies. Might be something helpful.
As her fingers touched the edge of the Eater’s loincloth, the entire body sank inward. A waft of foul air made her screw up her face. When she looked again, the body was only a paler smear on the ground. Not wanting to breathe in another body, she eased herself back and to her feet.
Now she knew what to look for she could make out dozens of paler patches scattered between her and the stones. Kobb had been right. Each one of those smears had been an Eater. The stones had killed too many to count.
The thought of it pushed at her. Gritting her teeth, she forced herself to keep a slow enough pace to not miss something. “We should get into the forest. While we’ve still got enough light to find where they went.”
“No more bodies ahead,” said Haelen. “Could be that was all of them.”
“Or the bodies were intact enough the survivors took them away,” said Kobb.
Anessa paused. Only people cared about their dead. But, the Eaters had made a deal so they had to be more than just clever beasts. She wasn’t sure if knowing how much like people they were made them seem better or worse.
Reaching the edge of the forest without finding a sign of which way the Eaters might have gone, she desperately studied the tree line. The power hadn’t left the same barrier of tangled trees here, but there was no sign anyone had moved through the undergrowth either. Kobb’s idea had seemed like a good plan while there was light, but with the day gone and the clouds hiding the moon there wasn’t much she could do. “I’ve lost the trail. If it was ever here. We have to stop.”
“Whatever the Reverend says about those clouds, I don’t trust them not to rain on us.” Haelen pulled his hood further forward. “Let’s at least get under the trees before we stop.”
Anessa crept into the forest. As she stepped from the blasted earth, the scent of rotten leaves and damp mud wrapped around her again like an old blanket. Even without the trees being forced against each other, they had grown close and twisted. She could make out the hint of a way clear enough for Falcon, but the gloom and the undergrowth conspired to make it seem a killing ground between blinds and dead falls.
Closing her eyes, she raised a hand. Without the sound of the others footfalls, the forest fell silent. She stilled her breath. A thrush trilled in the distance. Something felt wrong, but she couldn’t point to it. She studied the shadows again. Nothing seemed out-of-place.
Except the thrush. There were no other animal noises, and it was past dark, so why was a thrush singing? Unless—
There was thrush song when the Eaters attacked. Sweeping her crossbow from undergrowth to shadow, she back stepped to the others. “I think they’re nearby.”
Kobb drew his weapons. “Which way?”
Anessa peered at the undergrowth. Shadows seemed to move in the corners of her eyes, but stilled when she looked straight on. “There’s only one way we can go—unless we leave your horse. We either wait, or chance they’ve not set an ambush.”
“And the longer we wait, the more chance they get to pick their moment,” said Kobb. “We move on, but no risks.”
Keeping close to the others rather than leading the way, Anessa crept through the thinner undergrowth. The thrush trilled again, nearer this time.
The realisation the song had changed hit her at the same moment an Eater spear flew over her head. From behind her, Haelen screamed incoherently.