Erin hastily took a step back from the water, or tried to do so, but her shoes had formed a bond with the mud. If she wasn’t careful, she would be going back to the inn in her socks.
The shadow in the water moved at the same time, at the same place where her own reflection should have been.
“I… Are you a mer?” she asked, stalling for time. She hadn’t thought this far ahead, mostly because she really didn’t think the shells would work.
“Do not waste my time, child.” This time the voice sounded impatient, but Erin could not tell if it was male or female. “How came you by those shells?”
“A mer gave them to Mr. Sollis, and since I, uh, the Last Inn is, um…”
“Do stop that,” the mer said with a sigh that sounded like water rippling. The river stirred around the shadow and a head emerged from the water. Around a solemn round face floated fine hair that was not so much blonde as entirely colorless. The mer’s eyes above water appeared gray and just as devoid of color as its skin and lips. “You say you are Sollis’s heir? The Smith’s daughter?”
Erin flushed at the chuckle that accompanied those words. “How do you know who I am?”
“You played often by the river as a child, did you not? But you have never called for my kind before. What has happened?”
Erin bit her lip and tried to tell herself this just meant less to explain, but she suspected it would be a long time before she went swimming in the river again. She cleared her throat and said, “I was wondering if Mr. Sollis ever came to you or one of the other mer looking for something?”
“That?” The mer’s tone changed, sounding more human than river now. “He came to us, yes, but it is beyond our reach. We told him, only human hands may hold it.”
“Hold what?” Erin asked.
“You do not know?” The mer shifted uneasily in the water, but that may have been due to the wind picking up. “It is the key to breaking the chain.”
“What chain?” Erin shuddered and crossed her arms. It was getting colder now that she thought about it, and she was starting to wish this mer would give her a straight answer. “He wrote about somebody in the journal, too. This key thing, was it to help them?”
“The chain is a curse, powerful and deep. I can not say anymore; human hands must break what human hands have wrought.”
“Did you come up with that just now or have you been sitting on that piece of wisdom for a while?” Erin pouted, but already that bit about the curse had her mind turning. “Can’t you tell me anything about how to find it?”
The mer smiled. “Always a cheeky child. Why do I need to tell you what you already know?”
“But I don’t–”
“I must go,” the mer said with a shudder. The once colorless face now seemed to be taking on a blue tone. “It is too cold!”
Without even a single goodbye, the mer dove back under the water and the shadow disappeared. Erin stared down into the river and considered throwing some more chel shells in, but she figured the mer wouldn’t tell her anything else, if it even bothered to return.
Instead, she climbed back up the hill with more than one slip in the clinging mud and put the box back in the basket of her bike. On the ride back to the inn, Erin kept breaking out into a smile at the thought of the look on Kota’s face when she told him what she had been up to while he’d been sleeping.
Behind the inn, Erin parked her bike in the usual spot and used the water pump to wash the mud off of her shoes. She was so focused on trying to get the slimy stuff off that she did not notice there was someone else in the yard until Terra spoke.
“Hiking through mud?”
“Uh, sort of,” Erin said, after recovering from the shock. “I just…you know, taking a ride, getting some fresh air while the inn’s quiet.”
“Yeah, I couldn’t stand being cooped up in that place all the time,” Terra said, jerking a thumb in the direction of the inn. He frowned and added, “But you’re not scared of the wolf?”
“Well…” Erin nearly panicked, but managed to give him a small smile and say, “It’s the middle of the day, isn’t it? And it’s not like I went into the forest or something.”
“Yeah, about that,” Terra started, but he was cut off by a scream coming from the direction of the treeline.
Terra and Erin both ran around the building, the hunter outpacing her with his long strides, in time to see a horse race out from underneath the trees, kicking up spurts of stones and dirt beneath its hooves as its rider urged it on.
Rider and horse cleared half the distance between the woods and the inn before several dark shapes emerged from among the brush.
“What are those things?” Erin asked.
Terra narrowed his eyes and apparently could see more of the low bodies speeding across the ground than her because he said, “Get inside, now!”
The rider pulled her horse to a stop outside of the inn and looked over her shoulder. Seeing the creatures following behind, her face paled and she gasped out, “Iron!”
“I know,” Terra snapped as he strung his bow and selected an arrow from his quiver. “Erin, is there any iron in the inn?”
“A horseshoe, a nail, anything!” Terra cast a glance at the horse beside him but shook his head.
“No, I– Wait, hold on a minute,” she said and ran inside the inn.
Behind her, Terra said, “We don’t have a minute,” and yelled something at the rider. When Erin returned from her room, the rider, a young woman so wrapped up in a cloak that only her face was visible, came running in and started to bar the door.
She wanted to ask her what the dark, shadowy shapes that were zigzagging their way up the road were, but there was no time. Erin ran past the rider and out into the yard.
“Will this work?” she asked Terra, holding out a badly made horseshoe.
He took one look at it and grinned. “Perfect. Go back inside and put it over the door, it will keep them from coming in.”
“What are they?” Erin asked, unable to hold the question in any longer.
“Shadows, that’s all,” Terra said, and she noticed that he was trying to sound much more soothing about it than he should have been. He readied an arrow and peered down its shaft at the approaching shapes.
Now that they were closer, Erin could see that they were shadows, bizarre and out of place without anything to cast them as they moved under the bright, sunlit sky, flitting across the ground and moving in random bursts of speed. They changed shape and size several times, and as hard as she stared she could not figure out how many of them there were before they shot forward again.
“Get inside,” Terra said again, and this time Erin listened. She turned and managed to take two steps before she saw something move out of the corner of her eye. She blinked and stared at the space between them and the front door of the inn, which was now suddenly occupied.
“These things don’t like iron, right?” she said, trying to sound calm.
“Yes,” Terra said. His hand moved and an arrow flew straight into one of the shadowy creatures, and right out the other side. The hole where the arrow pierced it closed itself, and the shadow continued to come closer without even missing a beat.
“How long do you think a horseshoe can hold them off?” she asked.
Terra risked glancing over his shoulder and saw that some of the shadows, in their deceptively strange movements, had slipped past without him seeing it. They were surrounded, with no way back to the inn.