Kota was barely aware of his paws hitting the ground after he cleared the fence. The sound of the cannishift right behind him competed for space in his mind with the imperative to run, run, run. Where he was running to hadn’t quite registered yet, but he’d always found that sort of thing sorted itself out after he’d made some distance between him and what he was running from.
The only problem was that he could not shake the cannishift, which as a wolf matched him for every step no matter which way he went. They passed through one of Farmer’s outlying fields, empty now with all of the other animals locked up and the workers staying close to the center of the farm. He spotted a pond in the middle of the field and steered toward it, but it had dried up so much that his paws felt merely damp after running straight through it.
Behind him the cannishift snarled and Kota found a new burst of speed that took him off of Farmer’s field and beyond, over ground that grew hard and cracked where even weeds struggled to grow and the occasional wind threw up a cloud of dust that stuck in Kota’s throat and made him choke.
The wind wasn’t the only thing throwing up dust, as Kota and the cannishift found out for themselves when they cleared a particularly bad cloud and Kota nearly ran straight under a horse pulling a familiar wagon.
Kota’s paws shot out from under him as he tried to stop while the horse reared up onto its hind legs, snapping the shaft of the wagon as it kicked out with its flailing hooves. Men and women shouted on every side as the caravan of merchants swiftly fell into disarray, but Kota was only aware of the cannishift’s weight bearing down on his back, pushing him to the ground as a set of powerful jaws clamped down on the back of his neck.
The air cracked with the sound of a shot being fired and the cannishift yelped as its weight shifted on Kota’s back. He looked up to see the mercenary who accompanied the caravan guards standing nearby, calmly reloading another bullet into the smallest gun Kota had ever seen, small enough to be held in one hand. The mercenary’s eyes were locked onto his face, taking in the mark over his left eye.
Behind him another gun fired and the cannishift’s body went limp as Kota dragged himself up and started running again. The cannishift fell off of his shoulders when he darted under the wheels of the stopped wagon and came out the other side, the shouts and screams falling behind while he found his second wind. The bullet that hit the ground not far from his back paw didn’t slow him down either as he scrambled over the ridge and out of sight.
The sound of the three shots fired reached Erin as she spoke to Joe Farmer and Miles heard them at the Last Inn. He briefly looked up before putting Kota’s meager belongings back into the only bag he had brought with him to the inn, except for one small item that he turned over in his hand a few times before carefully returning it to its spot under the lining of the bag. A small, golden pin in the shape of a sunburst, much like the mark on Kota’s own face. Well, it was something to go on. Now Miles just had to hope Kota wouldn’t go and get himself shot or eaten in the meantime.
Erin caught up with the caravan at about the same time as Jeremy and Peter, in time to see the crowd still gathered in a ring around something lying on the ground. She could hardly breathe as she pushed her way through the traders and guards until she got close enough to see the body.
The cannishift still had the body of a wolf, but in its death throes it had apparently tried to change into too many different things in a futile attempt to save itself. Its back legs looked like they belonged to a chicken of all things, and a pair of bull horns seemed out of place on the top of a feline head. The cannishift’s front legs were so out of proportion to the rest of the creature and twisted that Erin could not place them for anything.
Not that she really wanted to. It was enough to see only one body, and one that clearly belonged to the cannishift.
Amid the murmuring behind her as those familiar with the creature identified it for others, Erin caught the mercenary saying, “The other wasn’t a cannishift. I told you, it had a mark on it, bright yellow and orange. Cannishifts don’t go for markings, makes them too easy to identify.”
“A wolf, right?” Jeremy said, closer to Erin than she expected. She moved to make sure they wouldn’t notice her and send her home while staying close enough to overhear. “That thing was at the farm the other day, it’s been attacking our animals!”
“I don’t think that was your problem,” one of the guards said. He kicked the cannishift on the ground and started to explain what it was to Jeremy, but Erin kept her eyes on the mercenary.
He frowned and looked at the ridge that followed the road for a second before coming to a decision. He checked his gun, one of the capital pistols, and loped away without a word. After a moment of indecision, Erin followed him over the ridge and through the wastes, trying to stay back as he constantly stopped to check the ground and followed a trail invisible to Erin’s eyes that took them back around in the direction of Farmer’s place until it veered off under the trees.
Erin had not been aware of the darkening sky overhead until the first raindrop hit her head. Thunder rumbled in the distance and she realized that Kota, wherever he was at, would be back to his normal self by now just as the mercenary bent down to look at something on the ground: a set of wolf tracks that changed, mid-step, into bootprints.