The sound that came from beneath the trees, like a growl and a snarl wrapped up in one and closer than anyone expected, made more than one person jump. Even Lani missed a note in the strange, complicated tune she was playing on her flute, but she recovered just as fast and did not stop playing.
As the music grew faster, the snarling came closer until it became a long, low rumble from the chest of the wolf who emerged from the bushes.
Erin gasped, but for a different reason than most of the others around her; this wolf seemed a far cry from the Kota she knew, the rake-thin wolf who cowered away when it could not run or hide. If not for the mark over its eye, she would never have connected him to this massive wolf, made even bigger by the ridge of fur standing along its back and wide, gaping jaws locked into a grimace.
The wolf shook its head but continued coming closer to Lani, drawn by the song of the flute. Beside Erin, Terra reached for an arrow even as the wolf’s muscles tensed to leap, but he did not have the chance to shoot before Lani’s preparations she had told Kota about became evident.
The tamer risked moving one hand from the flute to make a gesture, and at the sign a light flashed in the treetop overhead, just before a ball of fire swooped down over the wolf and curved back up into the air.
Terra swore, and ducked like the rest when the flame dove down again, so close to the wolf that the canine stumbled over itself trying to get out of the way. Erin watched, hand over her mouth for fear that she would call out and give Kota away, as the flying flame drove the wolf first one way, then another, until Lani nodded and blew a different note, this time long and shrill.
The wolf shook its head again and dropped to the ground, trying desperately to put its paws over its ears and block out the sound. It did not even see the dark brown shape that pounced on it, its wide, spade-like paws forcing the wolf to the ground.
Lani stopped playing the flute and bowed to the onlookers, or at least those that had been brave enough to stick around. “And that is how it is done, ladies and gentlemen.”
The guests of the inn clapped, one or two giving a whistle, and Erin supposed she was the only one who heard Terra’s teeth grinding. One lady asked, “What are you going to do with it now?”
“Tame it, of course,” Lani said, rolling up her sleeves as she said it. “Like Arlo and Junta here. Arlo?”
The ball of fire swooped down again, and the same lady gave a shriek as it landed on Lani’s shoulder. The fire disappeared, leaving in its place a beautiful bird that looked like a flame, or a flame that looked like a bird; it was hard to tell which, when the phoenix rustled its wings to steady itself.
Which made the creature pinning down Kota Junta, a creature about the same size as the wolf whose long, dark brown hair looked like it had been made out of mud. Its elongated face and small, round ears resembled that of a badger’s, and overall it looked like something that had just popped up out of the ground.
“What does she mean, tame it?” Erin asked Terra out of the side of her mouth as she watched Lani bend down in front of the struggling wolf.
“Magic,” Terra said, his face twisting at the word. When he saw Erin’s reaction, he said, “What, you think those two listen to her because she gives them treats? Tamers control their beasts with spells and tricks. Like puppets.”
“Whereas you just want to kill it for fun,” Lani retorted, easily able to hear what the hunter said when he made no point of lowering his voice. “Do stop the high and mighty act, it’s getting old.”
Terra’s face flushed as those around them laughed, but Erin had stopped listening. She stared in horror as the tamer placed her hand on the wolf’s head, just above the ears, and tried desperately to think of a way to stop this.
She thought Kota might bite her, but the wolf merely struggled and whined to get away. Lani laughed and murmured something to the animal that Erin could not hear, but she could see the wolf’s eyes widen as the tamer’s hand began to glow softly.
She also saw the wolf open its jaws and bark, the sound not bothering Lani but having a definite impression on the bird on her shoulder. The phoenix gave an undignified squawk and tried to take off, bursting into flame as it did so. Junta, or the mud badger as Erin thought of it, jerked back to get away from the fire so close to it, and the wolf used the movement to spring up, toppling Junta off.
Lani screamed before she could stop it, and the wolf licked her face and ran as fast as it could into the woods, faster than any of the bystanders were coming forward to help the screaming, cursing tamer up off the ground. It would have outrun Terra’s arrow as well, if the hunter could have stopped laughing long enough to shoot.
“Oh, shut up,” Lani snapped at Terra as she dusted herself off. “I came closer than you ever will!”
Terra kept laughing, his face turning red as he fought to breathe, and the tamer’s own face flushed scarlet when she heard a few chuckles among the other guests of the inn. She looked around and scowled when she saw the wolf was long gone.
“I’m not done yet,” she said and ran back toward the inn with her mud badger following at a more sedate pace due to its short limbs and bowlegged walk.
Erin exhaled deeply as the other guests started to walk back toward the inn, talking and laughing among themselves about what they had just seen. No doubt they would be telling others about the marked wolf who outwitted a tamer wherever they went to next.
She rubbed her eyes and looked at Terra, who seemed to be getting a hold of himself. “Were you worried she was going to get the wolf before you could?”
“Me, worried? No, of course not,” Terra said, proving that he was a terrible liar. That, or his voice always cracked and Erin just hadn’t noticed it until now. “The pets were a surprise though, but I guess I should have expected them.”
“They definitely surprised the wolf,” Erin said, staring at the ground while they walked. She remembered the wolf coming out of the woods, massive and feral and completely unlike the Kota she knew, and she shuddered. Was it just Lani’s flute that made such a difference?
“Too bad Kota missed all of the fun,” Terra said, startling Erin. “I can’t wait to tell him all about it.”
His smile suggested that he planned to tell the story where Lani could hear him recount the whole thing, and Erin nodded before she remembered that it could be a while before Kota showed back up. “Maybe you should wait a while, until it slows down a bit?”
Terra could hardly argue when they came back into the inn and found that everyone was more than ready to leave now. Watching the tamer work had been fun and all, but as one of the women told Erin as she returned her keys, no one wanted to stick around and see if the wolf made a return appearance.
It wasn’t until the last of the guest left her alone with Terra that Erin thought to wonder what could be keeping Kota so long, or where Lani had disappeared to after the failed taming.