One of the swordsmen sitting around the table looked up at the hunter and said, “You really believe there’s some kind of monster wolf running around?”
The man shrugged, the arrows in his quiver rattling at the gesture. “Like you said, the story’s been getting around, right? Seems like most of the villages I’ve been to lately have somebody who has claimed to see the thing.”
He started to pull up a chair but stopped and looked at Kota and Erin with a questioning look. Kota immediately pressed the hair down over his left eye while pretending to be occupied with cleaning off the other tables.
“Right, you mind if I ask you a few questions about the room later?” he said to Erin.
“Er, sure,” Erin said. She hesitated and then asked, “What do you mean, other villages have been talking about the wolf? I mean, what are the chances it’s the same one?”
The hunter put his stuff down and took a seat. “Well, it would be different if people just talked about a big wolf, wouldn’t it? Wolves are common enough, and villagers love a good werewolf story.”
“I saw it though,” the baker’s boy interrupted. “Running right through town, bigger than me and Tommy here together.”
“That’s not saying much,” one of the swordsmen said with a chuckle. “So you admit it yourself, this is probably just some animal desperate for food. Speaking of which…”
He looked at the empty platter and back at Erin, with a pointed stare. Kota, seeing a chance to escape from the room, quickly said, “I’ll make some more then, shall I?”
As he bent over the table, the hunter replied, “If it’s a normal wolf, then why is it that every eyewitness claims the beast has some kind of marking on its face?”
Kota straightened up and resisted the urge to make sure his left eye was still covered.
“What’s so special about a scar?” one of the men asked as Kota started back toward the kitchen. He gave Erin a reassuring smile, but she could see that the platter shook in his hands.
“Not a scar,” the hunter corrected. “A mark, red and orange like a sun or a flame. Show me the blade that could leave a mark like that.”
“That’s right,” the baker’s son said. “Who told you about that?”
“No one had to,” the hunter declared. “I saw it myself, in the far mountains back at the beginning of the year. I’ve been tracking it ever since.”
Erin looked for Kota, but he had already disappeared into the kitchen.
“You’re telling me you’ve been chasing the beast for nearly a year?” The swordsmen laughed, and one of them said, “Not much of a tracker then are you?”
The hunter placidly stared at them until the laughter died away on its own and then said, “Not chasing. Just keeping tabs on it. Not much use killing it if I’m not going to be paid, right?”
He grinned and the other men nodded. Erin noticed that the members of the town patrol were staring at him with outright awe, which grew even greater as he changed the subject and began to tell about his exploits, such as how he slew the fire-breathing ram that had terrorized a group of shepherds in the uplands.
The hunter could tell a story, that was for sure. He knew just when to lower his voice to get the others to lean in, or to bellow a line that sent at least one of the boys flying backwards in his chair. It did not take long before the entire room had gathered around to listen in, and Erin only knew that Kota had returned at all when she took a sandwich from the refilled platter.
After the tale of the “Stalking Terror” of Ninea, the town patrol suddenly remembered that they needed to go, and even the swordsmen seemed subdued as they and the other guests retreated to their rooms for what would no doubt be a sleepless night. Soon the room seemed darker and quieter than ever, making the howling wind outside that much more noticeable.
Erin already knew she would have a hard time going out at night after that one as she began to gather the plates and dishes. She nearly dropped the whole lot when the hunter suddenly spoke out of the quiet.
“I meant to ask, how much for a room?”
“For one night?” she asked, even though she already knew the answer.
“That works. Tomorrow I’ll make an arrangement with your mayor to pay for the rest of my stay.” The hunter followed Erin to the desk, where he exchanged the money for a room key. “Have you seen the wolf?”
“Er…” Erin struggled for too long to remember if she should have seen it or not. “No, no I don’t think so. I saw the cannishift a few months ago, but it was, um…”
“Yes, the mayor told me about that in his letter. He thought it might be the same thing this time,” the hunter said. To Erin’s surprise, he looked over in the corner behind the desk and said, “What about you, have you seen it?”
Kota shifted in the shadows, the movement alerting Erin that he was even there. “Can’t say that I have. I was going to tell you, Erin, I could handle the dishes if you want to go to bed. I think it’s my shift now.”
“Right, of course,” Erin said, but she suspected that Kota had really been hiding. “So, Mr..”
“Terra,” the hunter said. He smiled and rubbed his jaw. “And you two are Erin Smith and Koda, right? The mayor said you two ran the inn.”
“Kota,” Kota corrected, surprised that the mayor had even got it that close. “So you’re the hunter Madame Elzwig told the mayor about?”
“Ah, so that’s how he heard of me!” Terra laughed and ran a hand through his short, dark hair. “I wondered, I don’t normally work this area. But yes, I have helped the Judge with a few jobs, when the Empire bounty hunters couldn’t be called in. I don’t charge as much as they do, as long as the work’s good.”
“Good?” Erin asked.
“You know, fun, a challenge. Take this wolf. One look at that mark, and I knew I should keep an eye on this thing. This is going to be interesting.”
Kota sighed and said, “I’m afraid so.”
He showed Terra up to his room while Erin put the money away in the lockbox. When she went back to her room, she could hear Kota pacing the floor of the common room, back and forth. By the time she fell asleep, she could still hear him, back and forth and back and forth, with no sign of stopping soon.