“What was that thing?”
Erin and the mercenary both turned to find that Peter had followed them and spotted the strange tracks.
“Those aren’t wolf tracks,” he added. “Did that thing…Did it…?”
“If I had to guess, it’s some kind of shapeshifter,” the mercenary said with a shrug of his shoulders. He stood up and brushed off the knee of his pants. “Not a cannishift like the thing that I shot, and not a werewolf. Full moon’s not until next week.”
“You keep track of that sort of thing?” Erin asked.
“You would if you had ever had to deal with one of them.” The mercenary looked at them, but his mind was clearly still on the wolf. “It had a strange mark. I wonder if—”
He broke off when a shout came from in the distance and swore. “I’ve got to get back to the caravan, they lose their heads at the first sign of trouble. You two should get back with your other friend.”
“Wait, what are we supposed to do about this monster running around?” Peter asked. “That thing’s been hanging around the farm, who knows if it wasn’t the thing attacking the animals?”
“Well a few days should answer your question. If the animals make it, then it was the cannishift. If they don’t, it was the wolf shifter, or both. Simple enough.” The mercenary looked to the forest, his gray eyes following the trail. Erin could nearly see how much he wanted to keep going, but another shout broke his gaze.
“But that wolf! Look at those tracks, it clearly turned into a human! What do we do about something like that?” Peter dogged the mercenary’s steps as he headed back toward the caravan and Erin trailed behind to hear his answer.
“Tell the town then. They can go on a hunt if they think that’ll help. You do have hunters here, don’t you?”
“Well…” Peter trailed off and Erin knew what he was thinking. There were a few hunters in town, but most of the locals would never dare to go into the forest alone. Those who did went in large groups, and never that far in. All Kota would have to do is go a few miles in to lose them if he ever had to.
“I’m going to head back to the inn,” Erin announced. The large raindrops were falling faster now, but if she ran she might make it back before she got drenched.
“Alone?” The mercenary asked. “What about the wolf?”
“I doubt he’s going to do anything today, after everything else,” Erin said. Kota would be either in the forest or back at the inn licking his wounds by now. “Besides, it’s not that far.”
The mercenary looked at Peter, but the man ignored him and kept walking, intent on getting Jeremy and heading back to the farm before the bottom fell out of this storm. He came to a decision and said, “The others can wait a little longer. Come on.”
Erin protested but when the mercenary showed no sign of leaving she gave up and started walking. They didn’t say much, and the walk seemed to take forever in the quiet despite their swift pace.
The Last Inn came into view just as they heard a shout. Kota came running up through the now fiercely falling rain and stopped in front of them, out of breath and red in the face.
“Miles said you went… You were out, and with the rain and everything else,” Kota said, stumbling over his words as he looked from Erin to the mercenary. “I, uh, just wanted to make sure you got back okay.”
“Wow, you’re soaked! Did you run out to the farm looking for me?” Erin smiled as if joking, but she caught the way the mercenary took in the mud coating his shoes and the leaves sticking out of his wet hair that, plastered down from the rain, barely covered the mark on his face. “Well, thank you for walking me this far, but I can go back with Kota from here.”
“What? Oh, right.” The mercenary smiled at Erin and gave her the same bow as the first day he arrived at the inn. “I look forward to returning here soon. Please send word to the capital if that wolf continues to trouble you. Forgive me for saying it, but I doubt your town knows how to deal with such things.”
“Uh, sure, thank you,” Erin said while Kota rolled his eyes. “We look forward to having you again.”
She and Kota did not wait around to see the mercenary off. They ran back to the Last Inn, their arms over their heads to shield themselves from the torrent while they urged each other on. Behind them, the mercenary remained for a second longer, watching Kota’s muddy footsteps fill with rainwater.
“Yes, I doubt ‘he’ will do anything else today too,” he murmured to himself. He turned away and jogged back in the direction of the caravan, sure that he would hear more than enough about his absence to last all the way back to the capital.
Miles stood waiting at the entrance to the inn, holding the door open as they ran in, laughing and leaving a trail of rain and mud in their wake.
“Have fun, did you?” he asked as he shut the door on the raging storm.
“Well, I didn’t get shot, so I’d consider this a good day,” Kota replied. “And the cannishift has been taken care of, in case you were wondering.”
Miles patted Kota’s head and said, “Good dog. Now don’t go shaking yourself inside, you hear?”
Kota pushed him away and Erin said, “So…You already knew about Kota?”
“We discussed it,” Miles said while Kota sat down in a chair and fought to pull his boots off. “You two really should talk more. And dry off.”
Erin pulled off her own shoes and noticed the line of mud and water on the floor. She groaned and said, “Great, as if we already didn’t have enough to do.”
“I’ll—” Kota broke off for a large yawn and continued, “take care of it, after I change.”
Erin tore the mop from his hands and asked, “When was the last time you slept?”
“Uh huh. Go ahead and get some sleep, I can take care of this.” Erin prodded him with the handle of the mop until he went up the stairs and then turned around to stare at the mess and sigh. When she returned in some dry clothes, Miles looked up from his seat and smiled.
“Tell me about it.” Erin set down the bucket of mop water and started cleaning. “Kota has no idea how close he came to getting caught, and now it won’t be long before the whole town’s looking for him.”
Erin explained about the tracks and what the mercenary had said while she mopped and the smile on Miles’s face became replaced by a more thoughtful expression.
“News does travel fast around here, doesn’t it? Maybe if he left town for a little while…”
“He can’t leave! If I don’t have a partner, Dad and Geld won’t let me run the inn!”
Miles and Erin looked at each other until Erin had the decency to blush and add, “And he said he’s looking for something around here, right? Something that will break the curse?”
Miles snorted and watched Erin take the mop and bucket back into the kitchen. “As if it were that easy.”
“What?” Erin said as she came back in.
“Would you like me to watch the inn tonight so you can get some sleep?” Miles asked, his smile returning. “I’m going to be up writing my report anyways, and I doubt there will be anymore guests coming in tonight.”
Erin listened to the storm, which was almost drowned out by the creaking and groaning of the inn under the rain and wind, and had to admit that Miles had a point, not that she felt like arguing the point. Sleep sounded great right about now.