Previously on Seven Stones: A huge boar, twisted by mutation, smashes through the tree line. Kobb kills it before it hurts them, leading Haelen to celebrate their swift victory. However, Anessa believes the damage to the settlement is too extreme to be caused by a single boar. Not wanting to head into danger without knowing more about the boars, the three of them head south through the tangle of shattered trees. Taking advantage of the path cleared by the boars, all is going well—until they meet a boar coming the other way.
Anessa readied her crossbow. The boar had the same bone spines and ragged coat as the one in the clearing, but it seemed tentative. Her guess about the resin muddling their senses must be right. She settled her weapon and took aim. No sense in killing it before it was a threat; longer she watched it the more she’d learn.
Shuffling sideways, the boar slammed the side of its face into a branch and then swayed back toward the centre. A beam of sunlight struck the boar’s head as it staggered on, revealing its left eye socket gaped empty in an expanse of bone. Seemed like more than not smelling. Spasms running through its limbs, it charged.
Anessa’s finger tightened on instinct. The quarrel smacked into the boar’s neck, sinking deep enough to be lost in the gloom. She began to reload.
Front legs losing order, the boar tumbled forward; but didn’t stop for another six feet. A final twitch ran through its back legs, then its body collapsed.
Haelen drew his knife and stepped closer to the corpse. As he crouched down next to it, the boar slumped further. The exposed bone glinted.
Bolt settling into place, Anessa had turned her attention back to the gloom ahead when she realised the boar was in shadow. As she swung around, a jagged shape flickered up from the boar’s head.
Haelen leapt to his feet as the whirr of wings filled the air.
Kobb’s Courser flew to his hand.
Unfolding multiple chitinous limbs, the insect surged toward Haelen.
Anessa shook off her shock and loosed her quarrel. Chips of bark exploded from a smashed trunk as it passed through the creature without stopping.
Kobb still hadn’t fired. Haelen must be blocking his line of sight.
Leaping away from the oncoming mandibles, Haelen stumbled and fell, a shaft of sunlight striking his blade.
The monster lunged forward, but veered suddenly. Heavy silence swallowed Haelen’s gasping as purple light wreathed the monster’s form.
Eyes dull and wings tattered, the insect tumbled to the ground, from the shuff of pine needles now solid.
“How…?” Anessa wound her crossbow as fast as her arms would go. “Why didn’t the other boar…?”
“I used a Courser. Maybe it killed the parasite as well.”
Anessa let the crank spin back. “I didn’t spot it till it were close, and I can’t do anything about the real threat if I do notice it in time… I might not be a hero after all.”
“Killing’s not what makes a hero.” Kobb helped Haelen upright. “And shooting that boar before it hit us is enough for me.”
Haelen brushed needles from his trousers as best he could. “Reverend’s right. If anyone’s to blame for it finding us, I am. Poking the dead ain’t going to tell us more than we know. I reckon we head back.”
Anessa peered at the insect. Ten legs, ending in six-inch spikes, splayed beneath a body covered in triangular scales. Rubbery tendrils surrounded a cluster of seven differently sized eyes. Even dead, it gave her the creeps. “Boar acted odd. First one blasted through those pines and came hard at me. This’n wandered till it realised we were here, like it had shaking fever… well, not the same, but I reckon something happened ahead.”
“She’s right. Behaviour was different.” Haelen winked. “One of the basics of healing and I missed it. If you’re not careful, Anessa, you’ll have my place and the Reverend’s.”
She felt a flush rise up her neck. Suddenly glad of the gloom, she readied her crossbow and moved off. Haelen’s praise running through her mind, she breathed a little easier. But only a little: tracking beasts she couldn’t hurt, even if they were sick, made the Korha seem easy.
Ahead the path brightened, gaps between the tangled wood becoming larger and more frequent. At the range of her sight, something hunched in the shadows. Pointing ahead and then pressing a finger to her lips, she crept closer.
Bone spurs and matted fur emerged from the murk. But the boar’s legs splayed beneath its slumped, motionless body. Alert for the slightest flicker or twitch, she moved forward. Kobb and Haelen followed, weapons ready.
Close now, she saw the fletchings of quarrels between the spurs. Someone killed it, but had the insect—? Branches creaked to her left.
She rolled away, and automatically brought her crossbow up. A young man in muddy leathers dropped between two slanted trunks, crossbow hanging in one hand. She jerked her finger off the trigger. “Who are you?”
The hunter fell to his knees, sweat glistening on his forehead. “Attacked… get home…”
“The boars attacked you?” Haelen ran forward. “Let me take a look.”
The young man slumped to the ground, letting the crossbow slip from his fingers, as Haelen poked and peered. Eventually, Haelen straightened. “Can’t find wounds or breaks, but you do need rest. We should make camp for the night.”
“Might want a safer spot. Not sure I fancy boar for supper.” Kobb rested a hand on the hunter’s shoulder. “You have any companions that might be out there? Or see how many boars survived.”
The man mumbled something.
Kobb crouched down. “Didn’t catch—”
The hunter’s left hand clamped around the butt of Kobb’s Courser. Heels digging into the dirt, the man’s legs kicked hard. Stolen weapon clutched tight, he rolled past a wide-eyed Haelen and rose to his feet.