Within an hour or two Erin had the Last Inn to herself, as all of the guests left to either continue on their way or, like Terra, go into town. She roamed around for a while, but what little there was to do did not take long. Practice made changing the sheets on the newly emptied rooms easy enough, and she told herself the laundry could wait another day, or until Kota got around to doing it. If today was like the past couple of days, she knew not to expect anyone to come to the inn until late in the afternoon.
They still had enough food to last a few days, and even then she had made arrangements with the butcher, baker, and Mr. Farmer about regular deliveries for the usual stuff as long as the current traffic kept up, so there wasn’t an excuse to go out.
Eventually, when she could no other reason not to, Erin pulled Sollis’s journal out of the desk and settled into a chair at the same table where Kota and Terra had their earlier chat. There, in the morning sunlight, she turned the crackling pages over and began to read.
At least, she tried to read. Just like every other time she picked up the journal, she found herself skimming and skipping over entire pages in increasing frustration. Not once, not once did the old man mention exactly what it was he had been searching for, just oblique references to “it,” and even an occasional “he” or “him.”
Sollis had been looking for something for somebody, but he obviously did not think he would need to explain it to himself or never thought anyone else would be reading his journal.
He’s getting depressed again, Erin read, and thought of Kota. She remembered reading the line before, and wondered if that was why she made the jump to thinking the writing could possibly have anything to do with his curse.
She read on: Searched forest. Walkers would not help. Even the little ones refused to get involved now. Mer checked river, no luck.
Erin blinked and read the passage again, several times, as an idea slowly began to form. She could not ask Sollis what he had been searching for, but he had told someone else. Several someones, by the look of it.
She jumped up and ran up the stairs before she could second guess herself. Skidding to a stop outside of room 1D, she banged on the door until Kota opened it.
He had clearly run to the door, and his eyes were wide open with the alertness of someone who had went straight from sleeping to waking with no in between steps. In his hurry, he had even forgotten to cover his mark.
“Nothing’s wrong,” Erin said, realizing a little too late that she may have made the wrong impression. When he sagged against the doorframe she quickly added, “What do you know about mer?”
“The water people?” Kota hid a yawn behind his hand and ran a hand over his face to keep himself awake now that the adrenaline was fading. “Not much, why?”
“Mr. Sollis mentioned one in his journal, and I was curious,” Erin replied. “Water people, you mean like the river in town?”
“All bodies of water are one to them, but yes, they prefer running water or the sea,” Kota said, his words slurring together a little. “Couldn’t this have waited?”
“Sorry,” Erin said. “Last question, how do you find them?”
He took so long to answer that Erin wondered if he had fallen asleep slumped against the doorframe, but eventually he said, “The witch would toss a handful of chel shells into the water to summon one.”
Kota rubbed his eyes and said, “Please, can’t this wait?”
“Oh, right, sorry,” Erin said. “Go ahead and go back to sleep. I’ll–”
Kota nodded and shut the door, not quite in her face. Erin fidgeted and opened Sollis’s journal again right there in the hallway, this time looking for a particular passage. It took a while, but she finally found the mention of chel shells. One of the guests had paid for their stay in the shells, and in what she thought of as a flash of brilliance, she knew just where to find them.
Around the corner of the hall she went, and up the stairs to the attic door. It opened with a loud creak that she hoped did not wake Kota back up, revealing a room even more dark and cluttered than she remembered. Her flash of brilliance had not included going back for a candle and matches.
She stepped into the dark with her arms thrown out to keep from running into anything. After a few fumbles she found what she was looking for near the door, and retreated to the hallway with a decorated box that upon opening proved to still be full of seashells.
Erin picked up one of the tiny shells and examined it, but she had about as much experience with normal seashells as with chel shells. She did know one way to find out which she had though.
She left a note on the desk just in case, but she figured she could get to the river and back hours before anyone else showed up. Her bike put up its usual protest as she steered it out of the yard and rode north, past the outskirts of town and as close to the wastes as she dared to go alone before veering off the road and down the bank to the river, where thick reeds grew and the hill behind her would shelter her from the sight of anyone passing by on the road.
Taking the box out of the basket, Erin stepped through the clinging mud, which squelched underfoot and threatened to not let go of her shoes. It helped that there was no one around, she thought to herself as she opened the box and took a handful of shells. Feeling more than a little foolish, she tossed the shells out over the water.
They glinted and danced in the water, but before the current had a chance to take them away the shells began to swirl, as if caught in a spiral. They spun around and around until they clustered together in the center of the small whirlpool, and then bobbed underwater as suddenly as if someone had reached out and grabbed them.
The whirlpool stopped at the same moment and the river continued on as normal as ever. Only a shadow under the water at Erin’s feet marked any difference, and as she watched it shifted and took on the face of a person staring out at her with the reflection of light on the water for eyes.
“Why do you call me, child?”