Previously on Seven Stones: Haelen suggests the less unusual stone links to Alcston, and begs Kobb to step through it. Kobb is uncertain but agrees. While attempting to understand the flow of power, Kobb feels himself hurled away.
Kobb’s blood glowed against the pristine snow. Cold biting into his knees, he tried to spit the copper taste from his mouth, but the effort set him coughing again, flooding his throat with bloody mucus.
“Kobb!” The snow crunched as Anessa dropped to his side.
Taking a gulp of chill air, he forced the pain down into his stomach. “Caught me off guard. I’ll be fine.”
“It worked. We’re there.”
Kobb straightened. Drifts of mostly white snow clung to low huts. “Haelen was right.”
“Looks sort of homely with the snow.” Anessa threw her arms out and spun around. “It’s all worked out.”
The sun hadn’t moved in the sky, so the journey had been almost instant. And—even accounting for the drifts hiding some of the decay—Alcston did seem better than when they left. More normal. Maybe too normal. “Best wait until we get back before we celebrate.”
Anessa’s shoulders slumped. “Sorry. You probably need to rest a bit.”
“Rest’s always good. But that’s not what’s bothering me. How do we get back?”
“Same way we…” Anessa followed her footprints to the start, then jumped. The snow puffed up as she landed. Eyes wide, she flicked her gaze from side to side. “There’s no stone this end.”
Kobb turned slowly on the spot. Apart from the spatters of blood and the snow churned by their feet, everything was calm. “Can’t see any sign of power.”
“Maybe the stones just put you sort of near where it is. What about that finding thing you did with the barrier? I’ll search around while you do…” Anessa scrunched her face up and thrust her chin forward.
“Was that really what I looked like? Constipated poultry?”
“No.” Anessa’s cheeks flushed to match her nose. “You looked very noble and serious, like a… Well, there might have been some resemblance… but definitely a heroic rooster.”
Kobb flapped his elbows. “Then let us hope the way back is like an egg.”
He closed his eyes and slowed his breathing. After waiting for the crunch of Anessa’s footsteps to fade, he focused on the Blessing of Form. The structure rose up in his mind, then hung lifeless. Letting it unravel, he opened his eyes and walked a few yards east. The barrier had been obvious once he knew what to seek; hopefully, whatever gap or knot in the world marked the way back would be similarly noticeable.
With each attempt the structure came more easily; yet remained dull and static. Feet numb and thighs aching, he stumbled into a clear patch in the lee of a hut. The sun was past noon; brushing the treetops already. If he didn’t freeze solid, he might finish checking the rest of the village before it was properly dark. But it would be bitter work. And that was assuming the wind stayed from the west. If it shifted round to over the swamp, the temperature—
The swamp. The Korha had been deep in the swamp. His limbs felt so heavy. Kobb slumped until he was crouched against the wall. If the end of the flow moved around then it could be anywhere. Searching a marsh in good weather, mere yards at a time, would be more than arduous. With winter settling…? He clutched at his pendant, but the darkness wouldn’t lift. Without movement to fight it off, the chill crept down his collar.
Shivering, he stood. They needed a fire and food. He should spend what light remained on finding firewood to last the night, and somewhere intact to shelter. After stomping a semblance of life back into his feet, he trudged towards the centre of the village.
“Did you find it?” Anessa jogged towards him.
Hope might sustain her when all else failed. “Haven’t finished looking yet. But I don’t need light to search, so a fire first. You found anything?”
“Someone’s been here since the Korha died…. Not for days though: there’s a bunch of Autumn’s Crown on a grave, but they were dead before the snow came.” She hunched deeper into her coat. “Fire’d be good. Shelter until tomorrow. If it’s sunny, might melt the snow enough to make things easier.”
“Better weather would be pleasant.”
“Least we know the way this time.” Anessa gestured at the forest.
Kobb stared. “What?”
“You don’t reckon we’ll find anything. You ain’t one for taking rests, so if you thought you’d find it, you’d still be trudging around with me trying to make you stop. And, you got that look like Dad got when I used to tell him my ideas about going places.”
Blessed are the innocent, for they see the truth without seeking. “Haelen won’t be pleased.”
“Well, he can get used to it. Going fast one way’s better than not at all. And, the barrier’ll— It’s only raising needs the stones right? You can get through it from the outside?”
“I don’t know. The answer’s probably in those notes Haelen’s trying to decipher.” Kobb squared his shoulders. “Bound to be. Once we reach the ring, he can work out how to get us inside.”
“Shame he ain’t here. Might notice if anything’s different in that room he found.”
“That hut full of odd stuff. Next to where we arrived. You walked straight past it, so the way back ain’t there; and all the notes are gone anyway. But if this power went away maybe something else changed?” Anessa shrugged. “Without him, we’ll never know.”
Kobb headed for the hut. The lunatic at the stones accessed the power, but didn’t give off the feeling of one burdened with it. What if the way back was the same: waiting to be used rather than constantly pushing against sanity? He entered a small room filled with a fireplace, a broken bed, and half-a-chair. On the far side, a doorway gaped in a crude wall; whoever lived here had split the hut in two.
Sidling through the detritus, he looked into the second room. A few intact containers stood on sagging shelves. Fragments of glass, pottery, and other rubbish dotted the floor. The mould had got in, like Haelen said. He made out a darker area in the far corner, several feet square.
He moved closer. A square of dark wood, the sheen of long polishing still visible under the mould, sat in place of the functional planks that made up the rest of the floor. Grabbing a fragment of cloth from a nearby pile, he wiped away some of the muck.
Kobb glanced at Anessa. “Why would someone make floorboards out of Anesh Oak?”
“Ain’t even heard of it.”
Kobb drew his Courser and tapped the butt. “This is Anesh Oak. You wouldn’t… not unless…”
Wiping frantically, he cleared a swathe of filth away. Familiar symbols, barely visible in the gloom, marked the dark wood. He grabbed another tatter of cloth and set to work. A pattern, unknown yet also obvious, emerged. “Tapping. They were trying to tap the flow.”
“And that’s a good thing?”
“No. It’s bad… I mean it’s bad they were doing it. But, might be good for us. A Courser doesn’t need to be right atop a source of power to work. So, even if it’s not that close, could tap the way back; bring it here.”
“So, we step on the wood and end up at the stones?”
“Not quite.” Kobb closed his eyes and let the structure rise up in his mind. With the pattern to underpin it, it required no effort to maintain it. Power flickered and shifted. Something pushed gently at him.
He straightened. A dull stone, without even the barest of sparkle, squatted next to him. “Haelen!”
A fur-wrapped figure ran out of the sleeping tent.
“That’s all it took?” Anessa frowned at Kobb.
“With the right pattern, yes.”
“But what about…? You’ll need that oak.”
“Anesh Oak is ideal for holding patterns, but—”
“—we don’t need to reuse the pattern,” interjected Haelen, stumbling to a halt, “If we’re only travelling once.”
Kobb patted the stone. “Only six more to purify.”