Previously on Seven Stones: The next stone leads to the broken remains of a small mountain settlement nestled within a pine forest. Based on the different depths of snow, Haelen suggests whatever smashed the huts did so over the course of several days. Before they can investigate further, the trees to the north start to shudder and thrash.
“It’s coming from there.” Anessa pointed at a section of tree line, her gaze flicking around the settlement. Nothing stood high enough to hide even one of them. “Maybe, we could make for the forest?”
“I don’t think it’ll help.” Kobb indicated the pristine snow. “Even if we can’t be seen, it’ll see fresh tracks.”
A deafening crack rang out.
“We can’t do nothing!” Shivering, Anessa unslung her crossbow.
Haelen tilted his head. “What if we stand close together? It smashed these huts in a line, so if we don’t get in its way…”
“Might work if it ignores us. But if it attacks fast, it would catch us all. Spread out, we make it choose between us and can flank it.” As Kobb jogged for the other side of the settlement, a massive pine slammed down, hurling snow into the air.
A huge hairy shape burst through the white cloud and pounded towards Anessa. She sighted and shot. Beneath the rumble of its charge, the crossbow sounded odd.
She’d forgotten to load it. Eyes locked on the oncoming mass of flesh and tusks, she abandoned the idea of firing again and ran sideways.
The boar veered to match her path.
Legs aching, she fought against the drifts; but they sucked at her feet, holding her to a fast walk. Something flared bright across the snow as a weight slammed into her back. The ground shook as the boar pounded closer.
Tumbling forward, Anessa felt a gust tug at her legs and smelt soggy fur. After the pain didn’t come, she turned over and eased herself up. Haelen lay face down in the snow beside her. Inches beyond his feet, a churned track led to a slumped mass of hair and bone. Haelen must have knocked her out of the way at the last minute.
She clambered upright as Kobb stalked towards them. Steam rose from the beast, swirling around the yellowed spurs that jutted randomly out of its pelt. Fumbling a quarrel into her crossbow, she peered for the slightest twitch. “A boar, but don’t look like right.”
“It’s natural enough a Courser killed it.” Kobb prodded the body with the tip of his rapier. “Wouldn’t risk eating it though.”
Haelen coughed and struggled up. He scrubbed his gloves across his face, dislodging clumps of snow from his beard and eyebrows.
Anessa clamped her teeth together. He’d saved her life. She shouldn’t laugh.
Haelen blinked his eyes clear and glanced at a handful of snow, before staring calmly at her. “I’m alive, so my disguise worked.”
Pushed over the edge, Anessa surrendered to a fit of the giggles. Ribs aching, she gulped down a draft of air, then hiccupped as the cold hit her throat.
Kobb glanced up from his study of the boar. “Maybe we should arm ourselves with snowballs?”
“Sorry.” Anessa scurried over to the corpse. Closer, and with the steam dispersing, she noticed the bristles were patchy, revealing pallid flesh and odd blisters. Its head was even worse: skin torn and scarred into a single shiny mass, broken only by misaligned tusks.
“Enjoy the victory, Reverend.” Haelen crouched next to them. “Cleaning the power won’t all be this easy.”
“Ain’t over yet.” Anessa pointed to the gaps in the pines and then the shattered huts. “This boar knocked down a tree, but that path’s wider. Less it went back and forth, it’d need a sounder to do so much damage.”
“You think there are a dozen more of them charging around?” Haelen’s smile faded.
“At least,” said Anessa. “Maybe they circled and came back—”
“—or maybe they kept going, and each strip is a new sounder.” Haelen paled as he considered the number of gaps in the tree line.
“Whatever happened, changed their bodies,” said Kobb. “Behaviour could be different too; corruption might even have made them vengeful.”
“Only one way to find out.” Anessa pointed south. “Remains are pointing away, so the boars left that way.”
Kobb sheathed his rapier. “But they came from the north. If there are… sounders of these things rampaging around, then whatever caused it’s that way.”
Anessa readied her crossbow. Wanting to make up for her earlier mistake, she peered to the north. Where would be the best place to enter the forest? But—instead of starting for the tree line—Kobb remained by the boar, gaze on at Haelen.
Haelen spent a moment beating the last of the snow from his coat. “Reverend’s right the problem’s likely north. But don’t fancy facing several of these without knowing more of what they’re like. I reckon we track them south and see what we learn.”
Grinning, Anessa changed direction. The snow crunched beneath her feet, as she led the way south to the nearest shatter in the tree line; and then stumbled to halt. The scent of resin choked her lungs. She’d seen a full-growth pine fall, but seeing the tangle of jagged stumps and trunks close up made the power of the boars loom huge.
She set her shoulders. Going after the sounder’d been her idea. So they smashed down trees? A normal boar’d hit hard enough to kill anyway, so these weren’t more dangerous. She could do this.
After studying the gaps in the pile, she sidled through. Warm shadow wrapped around her and her footsteps fell silent. Shielded by the chaos of branches, the ground had been spared the last several snowfalls creating a needle-floored bower. She crept forward a few yards. The route was gloomy, but the boars’d forced away any obstacle. She returned to the edge. “You’ll need to crouch in some places. It’s clear enough where they went though.”
Kobb patted the shattered end of a branch. “And we’ll hear if they try to come at us from the side.”
Sucking air through her teeth, Anessa slipped forward. The problem wouldn’t be if the boars came from the sides, it’d be getting away if a sounder came from ahead. The more time she spent in this tunnel, the less she liked it.
But the alternatives were clambering over the top of the broken trees, which’d be exhausting if it was even possible, or following the damage from one side, which’d still leave them open to being charged. At least under here, they’d an idea where the threat’d come. The roof of trees would protect against more falls too. Reassured, she padded faster.
The stink of resin made her feel blurry. But that might be helpful: boars had bad eyesight and hearing; they used smell to find threats so, with the damage smashing through obstacles did to their snouts, they’d not notice they were being tracked. A sharp crack sounded from behind her.
She dived against the wall of fractured wood and curled as tight as she could. After a moment, she realised the ground wasn’t shaking. Easing herself up, she saw Haelen holding a thick branch in one hand.
His shoulders slumped as he smiled in her direction. “Didn’t mean to scare you. Wanted something better than my knife, in case… It looked as if it would come free easily.”
“Stop talking,” hissed Anessa, the back of her neck itching. Something was wrong.
“No cause to be—”
“Quiet.” She pointed deeper along the tunnel. The subtle counter note to the breeze across the pines resolved into hooves scuffing needles. Snuffling from side to side as it advanced, a twisted boar staggered out of the gloom ahead.