It was the biggest wolf Erin had ever seen, not that she had seen many, and to her terrified eyes it filled the room, or at least the way to the nearest exit. The breath caught in her throat and she grabbed the nearest object – a broom – and swung it as hard as she could, fearing that those massive jaws would come snapping at her at any moment.
The broom caught the wolf several times around the snout and shoulders, driving the beast back into the kitchen from whence it came. Erin thought she heard a whimper, but that might have come from her. She hardly knew what she was doing; no thought seemed to be getting through the sheer terror and desire to get the animal as far away from her as possible while keeping all of her limbs intact.
The wolf retreated, back into the dim kitchen and Erin watched in horror as the creature turned back into the young man the moment he stepped out of the direct sunlight.
“Please, calm down,” he said, just before Erin whacked him with the broom again. “Will you stop that, already?”
“What are you, some kind of demon?” Erin yelled the words, and her voice betrayed her near hysteria. “Get away from me!”
The young man stopped trying to make some kind of calming gesture and settled for grabbing the broom handle just before she could hit him again.
“It’s just a curse,” he said. “That’s all.”
“That’s all? That’s all?” Erin’s shoulders started to tremble and she tried to pull the broom out of the young man’s grip. “How is that ever ‘just all’? You turned into a wolf!”
He released the broom so quickly that Erin almost fell backward and raised his hands in surrender.
“Just watch,” he said and slowly stepped around Erin and back into the sunlight streaming in through one of the windows. Almost immediately he turned back into a wolf, and Erin felt her stomach lurch at the swift but disturbing sight. Her fists clenched around the broom again and the wolf stepped back and laid down, so that he looked up at her with the same brown eyes of the young man.
Erin waited, but he didn’t seem to be on the verge of leaping at any second. She stared at the wolf and he stared back. Dimly she noticed the ribs that poked out of the wolf’s sides through the mass of gray, tan, and white fur, but her eyes went to the mark over the wolf’s left eye. It burned red and orange in comparison and looked for all the world like a sunburst, as if someone had been stupid enough to try and tattoo a wolf.
“What is that?” she asked, pointing at the mark.
The wolf’s ears went up and he walked around her again, being careful not to stray within striking distance. Back in the kitchen, the young man straightened up.
“I can’t talk when I’m like that,” he explained. He pushed back the hair that covered his left eye and pointed at the identical mark there. “This is the mark of my curse, I guess you’d call it. The sun is the trigger, the light turns me into the wolf and I can’t change back until I’m inside or in a decent amount of shade. Any other questions?”
“Why didn’t you tell me? How did you get cursed? Does it hurt? Why are clothes still there when you change back? Have you ever…” Erin stopped and made a gesture with her hand.
“Attacked someone? No, I haven’t,” he answered. The young man smiled and said, “At least, not yet. And do you really expect me to go around telling people about this? Would you?”
“Well, no, I guess not,” Erin said.
“For all I know, this town would run me out the second anyone found out, at the least. I’m surprised you’re not running for help right now, honestly,” the young man said, and Erin tightened her grip on the broom. “Not that I’m complaining. If you want me to leave, I’ll go. Not much reason for me to stay around, anyways.”
“Why did you even come here?”
The young man tilted his head at that and stared at Erin, as if trying to figure out how she meant that question.
“A witch told me that Master Sollis, the keeper of the Last Inn, would show me the way to breaking the curse. Obviously, that’s not going to happen now,” he said. “Unless you know of another Sollis in the area? A relative, maybe?”
Erin shook her head and he deflated with a sigh. Not that there was much of him to deflate, she noticed again. Pitiful, in every sense of the word.
“A witch?” she asked as she walked over to the counter where the young man had left the groceries.
“Yeah, I worked for a witch for a while,” He shrugged his narrow shoulders and said, “Cleaning, mostly. Sweeping, dusting, washing dishes, that sort of thing. Sometimes helped with the cooking, if the cook wanted someone to talk to. In exchange, she told me how to break the curse. Or at least, she was supposed to.”
“Well, there isn’t anyone around here who would know about that kind of stuff. I don’t think even Sollis did. Want a sandwich?”
The young man looked at her with obvious surprise and said, “Are you serious?”
“What, you have something against sandwiches?” Erin asked defensively.
“No, it’s just….” He stopped and said, “Thank you, that sounds good.”
“What’s your name, anyways?” Erin asked. “My name’s Erin Smith.”
“Kota,” he answered, after a long second.
Erin frowned down at the bread but didn’t say anything about that. Instead, she said over her shoulder as she piled the sandwich ingredients onto a tray, “Look, you can stay here for another night if you want, but after that you’re on your own.”
“Thank you,” Kota said again. “I don’t want to cause any problems for you or the other guests.”
Erin scoffed as she dropped the tray onto the single table in the kitchen. “What other guests? Look at this place! Everyone’s right, the inn should just stay closed. There’s no way I can do this by myself.”
Kota stood by the door and closed his eyes for nearly a minute, his thoughts and face unreadable. Just as Erin started to worry again he opened his eyes and said, “I can help with that.”