Previously on Seven Stones: After Anessa kills the second mutated boar, a hideous insect flickers out of its head. Anessa shoots but the quarrel passes straight through. Kobb is more successful. Continuing on, they find another dead boar and a lone hunter. Before they can find out what happened, the man grabs Kobb’s Courser.
Kobb rose smoothly, rapier singing out to point at the man’s heart. In the corner of his eye, he saw Anessa raise her crossbow. Shifting his weight onto his front foot, Kobb adjusted his guard to account for his target’s likely choices.
“Stay calm.” Haelen turned, palms raised. “We want to help.”
“Killing stone…” Gripping the Courser by its middle, the man waved it in the air. “Come through. Danger wrong.”
“Don’t have to be bad.” Anessa waggled her crossbow. “But we ain’t doing nothing until you put that down.”
The patterns on the Courser’s hilt stayed dull and not even light glinted from the crystal. The hunter wasn’t holding it as if he intended to use it either. Something about it had scared him. Could he have seen something similar? Settling into a neutral stance, Kobb let the point of his rapier drop to a defensive guard.
Eyes wide and head twitching, the man backed away. “Lawless… don’t want to.”
If he were going to attack, he would have. But that didn’t mean he wouldn’t get spooked. Kobb sheathed his rapier. “Anessa, put your weapon up. We’re all safe here.”
“What about boars? Even if we ain’t threatening each other, there’s more out there.”
“Boars gone.” The hunter nodded, his upper body rocking in time. “I go home. Safe.”
Anessa frowned for a moment before slinging her crossbow.
“We can help you.” Haelen smiled. “We should rest first, though.”
Kobb considered the man’s grip on the Courser. It was more than not intending to use it: none of his fingers touched the sigils. It could be chance, but there were two reasons a person might recognise a Courser.
Strolling forwards, he started gathering fallen branches. “Better get a meal on. Hunger doesn’t best feed hunger.”
“You scour?” The hunter bent from the waist and fumbled up some twigs with his free hand. “Together worship. Take —”
Kobb snapped upright and hurled his armful of branches at the man’s head. Anyone who saw a Courser being used might think it a stone that killed. But a simple hunter wouldn’t know about scouring, much less suggest that sort of worship.
Reeling backward, the man lost his grip on the Courser. Kobb lunged forwards.
Only to fall short as the man folded oddly, grappling Kobb’s chest.
Courser tantalisingly out of reach, Kobb snapped his arms up, hoping to break the hold.
The hunter’s arms jerked open.
But before Kobb could take advantage, his opponent re-established his grip. Hands clasping each other’s arms, the two men tumbled to the ground.
The hunter continued to twitch. For a moment, Kobb thought he could take advantage. But, the odd movements were matched by an unnatural strength.
Their rolling ended as the man’s knees drove into Kobb’s gut. Gulping air, Kobb stared up at his opponent.
And at Anessa stepping in. The flat of her turf-hook struck the hunter’s head. With a sickening crunch, his head snapped forward and he tumbled to the ground. Blood oozed from his nostrils, cutting the pine scent with copper.
“I just… I wanted to distract him.” Anessa spun away and retched up what remained of her breakfast.
As Kobb sat up, he noticed dark fluid leaking from the back of the hunter’s head. Fragments of bloody bone glistened between already matted hair.
The misshapen mess shifted. Hurling himself flat, Kobb rolled away as an insect flickered into view.
“Reverend!” Haelen scooped the Courser up and pitched it toward Kobb.
Fingers wrapping around the butt as the creature swung to face him, Kobb fired. Bark and twigs rained down as the power passed through the insect.
Swerving sideways, it flew into the shadows. Its tendrils drew in for a moment as a quarrel whisked through it. Otherwise unaffected, it came at Kobb again from the side.
Light. The other one hadn’t gone straight for Haelen; it had swerved around the sunbeam. Kobb shot at the branches above the insect, creating a new spear of sunlight.
Ichor trickled from the creature’s abdomen as it jerked back into the gloom.
Kobb shot repeatedly, raining wood and sunlight over his target.
Wings losing their rhythm, it spiralled to the ground.
Ignoring the deep ache in his lungs, Kobb unleashed his Courser on the fallen insect again.
Purple light flickered across its chitin. When the power faded, the insects wings were still and its eyes dull.
Kobb collapsed back on his side, hawking bloody spittle. Only to jerk upright as someone groaned behind him.
Struggling around, he saw the hunter twitch. Throat juddering, the man let out another ragged noise and then stilled.
After casting a quick glance at Kobb, Haelen crouched beside the hunter. Peering into his eyes for a moment, Haelen moved round to study the back of his head. “Apoplexy. Monster left without him dying.”
“Apo— He’s only sick?” Anessa helped Kobb sit up. “You can save him?”
Haelen shifted the hunter’s limbs, arranging him in an odd sideways sprawl. Straightening, he answered. “If I had everything I needed, and somewhere he could rest in the warm. Even then, there’s something wrong about his skull. Cracked like morning ice.”
“You mean I…?” Anessa pressed a hand to her mouth.
Haelen put an arm around her shoulder and turned her away. “You did right. Tap like that would only have stunned a healthy man.”
Kobb gripped his pendant and raised his Courser. The others wouldn’t approve, but it wouldn’t be the first secret he kept. And he needed to be certain.
A moment of silence and the hunter was released.
“Sunlight hurts them.” Kobb eased himself upright. “And more reliably than a Courser.”
Haelen gave Anessa’s shoulder a final squeeze, before turning back. “I reckon that one was in this boar first. Came out and went into the hunter. The boars don’t have cracked skulls, and this poor fellow’s ain’t broken enough to let that creature out. That flickering they do, maybe they can be only half there. Dodge it that way”
“So why did the first two just die?” Anessa reloaded her crossbow.
“Using a Courser takes it out of a person. Right, Reverend?” said Haelen. “Makes sense they’re here less they see a need.”
Anessa kicked the insect. “So, we catch them by surprise, we can kill them. But what if they took more people? I’ll kill a boar, but…”
“If Reverend’s right about sunlight, I reckon trepanning’ll drive one out.” Haelen made a twisting motion with one hand. “Old remedy. Hasn’t been used for longer than I’ve been a healer: supposedly, if you drill a hole in someone’s head it lets the evil out. Thought it was nonsense, but…”
Kobb nodded. “We have a plan. Stay in the light. If we meet a boar, aim for the head. If one of them’s in a person, we try Haelen’s idea.”
“North, then.” said Anessa.