Kota slowed to a walk once they were out of sight of the farm and let Miles run ahead. There was a stiff wind blowing now, pushing the dark clouds overhead with it. By the time he reached the Last Inn, he could even see the break in the clouds approaching, letting the sun through to heat things up some more before tonight’s storm.
“Hello?” He called as he opened the door, but there was no sign of Miles.
Erin’s brother, Art, started awake and quickly took his feet off of the front desk and sat up in the seat. “Oh, hey. Kota, right?”
Kota nodded, his eyes going to the windows. The boy had opened the shutters and even one of the windows to let in a breeze.
“Is Erin on her way?”
“Yes, she was right behind me,” Kota answered. “Did anything happen while we were gone?”
“Nah. Oh, those traders who were here finally left, but Erin said they’d already settled up.”
Kota wondered how long it would be before anyone else would want to stay at the inn. Miles talked like people would come flooding in any moment, but he probably only said that to get Eli Smith to back off.
Speaking of which, Kota asked, “Did you see Miles come in?”
Before Art could answer, a thump came from in the kitchen followed by Miles muttering dire things at the chair for tripping him up
“Never mind,” Kota said just as Erin walked in and pulled the door shut against the wind. “I’ll just go check on him.”
Erin saw Kota go into the kitchen and bit back her warning about the sun to say instead, “Hey Art, guess who I saw in town today?”
She told him about how things went with their dad while he gathered his stuff together.
“So he’s probably going to be in a bad mood. Again.” Art sighed and ran a hand through his short, dark brown hair. “You know, more than the permanent bad mood he’s been in since you moved into this creepy place. You could have warned me how much the walls creak.”
“Sorry?” Erin shrugged. “He’ll get over it eventually. Just think of this as a trial run before I move to the city.”
“A head’s up about that would be great, by the way. I can be sure to be out of town that month.” Art pushed his chair back into place. “Well, I’m going to head home before this storm comes in. See you around.”
“See you.” Erin held the door for him and started to shut it when he was out of sight until she noticed something strange.
“Uh, guys?” she called over her shoulder, and then again in a louder voice when Kota and Miles failed to show up.
“What is it?” Kota asked once they finally came out of the kitchen.
“I think someone followed us here,” she said, pointing.
They looked out at the cow standing in the middle of the yard in front of the inn, who stared back at them silently.
“How did she get out?” Miles asked. He started to walk out and then stopped short and slammed the door shut as the sun broke free of the clouds at last. “Sorry about that, reflex.”
“We should tell someone,” Erin said. “Joe’s going to think another cow’s been attacked.”
“Wait.” Kota pressed his hand against the door to stop her from opening it. “Don’t you think it’s a bit strange that a cow could get past all of those people without being noticed, much less get this far this soon? They’re not exactly the fastest animals around.”
“You’ve obviously never seen a stampede,” Miles said, but he didn’t sound so sure anymore. He went to one of the other windows and risked looking out again to find that the cow had moved. She was now going around the perimeter of the inn, her nose pressed to the ground and visibly sniffing like a dog after a trail. “Well, that doesn’t look normal.”
Kota paced the floor, his fingers pinching the bridge of his nose while he thought. He stopped and turned to face them as he said, “A cannishift.”
“A what?” Erin wondered if the lack of sleep was finally getting to Kota, but beside her Miles groaned and put his hand over his face. “What is that?”
“There are stories where I come from,” Kota said. “Of careless farmers who, when winter came, did not notice there was an extra chicken in their coop. Then, as time passed the other chickens would start to disappear until there was just one left, the cannishift.”
Miles said, “Cannishifts will take on the appearance of an animal to blend in with the group, and then lure them away one by one to eat them. That’s the reason why shepherds in remote areas won’t take in a stray sheep. I’ve never heard of one this far south, though.”
“But it fits, right? No tracks, no strange sm– Erm, no one would notice an extra animal if they’re disappearing left and right, and a lock wouldn’t matter if the cannishift is already inside the building.”
“So how can you tell if it’s one of those whatevers?” Erin asked. She looked out the window again, but the cow had moved out of sight. They heard a thump come from the kitchen, near the back door.
Miles and Kota shrugged.
“But if Kota is right, this one has been moving up, from chickens to larger animals,” Miles said. He remembered the horse, or rather what everyone avoided saying about the horse. “And become more violent, wasteful even.”
“I have heard that cannishift are very territorial.” Kota’s head turned when they heard another thump that shook the back door. “They’ll take out other predators if they think they’re a threat.”
A third thump was followed by a bang and the very definite sound of splintering wood.
Kota looked at Miles and said, “You just had to bite the cow, didn’t you?”