Erin leapt up when she heard the back door of the inn crash open and ran into the kitchen. She stopped short at the sight of Miles, leaning against the counter and looking over his shoulder at the sky out the window, which was changing colors as the sun began to rise.
“You don’t have to look that disappointed,” he said once he saw the expression on her face. “If it makes you feel any better, I’m sure there will come a day when I can’t outrace the sun.”
“No, it’s not that!”
“Oh, good,” Miles said, cracking a smile that faded when he saw Erin was serious. “What has Kota done now?”
“We ran into my parents and the mayor outside of the clock tower,” Erin said, and explained about the beast that had attacked one of the townspeople while Miles put a hand to his face and tried not to interrupt.
When she got to the part about how they talked Kota into going hunting with Terra, he broke down and said, “But he said no, right?”
“He tried, but–”
“But Kota doesn’t handle pressure very well,” Miles finished and Erin nodded. “So he’s out there, right now, with a hunter who thinks the wolf is the one attacking everyone.”
They both looked out the window this time, and Miles flinched at the sight of dawn. He moved away from the window, even though the sun was rising on the other side of the inn.
“Kota’s probably already given him the slip,” Erin said with more conviction than she felt. “Running away is what he does, he’s an expert at it. He’ll probably hide out until the coast is clear and sneak back to the inn with some story about how they got separated or something.”
“He’s going to ‘give the slip’ to a hunter who is known across the empire for his ability to track anything and everything?”
Erin did not know how to answer that, but she was saved from figuring that out when they heard three loud thuds, like someone kicking at the front door. “Kota!”
She ran through the inn with Miles following more cautiously, his eyes on the windows, and threw open the front door only to recoil with horror.
“Little help here?” Terra grunted under the weight of the wolf on his shoulder combined with the pack, and he staggered into the inn and dropped it onto one of the chairs, where, out of the early morning sunlight, it changed back into Kota.
The hunter had no time to say anything else before Miles slammed him up against the nearest wall, his face less than an inch away from the vampire’s.
“What did you do?”
“I didn’t do anything,” Terra said, as much as he could with the pressure on his neck. To Erin’s surprise, he stared back into the snarling vampire’s face without the slightest hint of fear. “Although it’s pure luck I didn’t shoot him before now, because not one of you thought to tell me that wolf was human.”
“Luck?” Miles tightened his grip and the hunter gave a gurgling sound. “You knew there was something with the wolf.”
“Madame Elzwig just told me to keep an eye on it,” he said, wheezing. “To shoot if it attacked, but that was it, I swear.”
Miles’s eyes narrowed, but he looked away when he heard Kota cough and say, “Let him go already.”
“You’re bleeding,” Miles said, only changing his grip enough that the hunter could breathe easily.
“Terra didn’t…” Kota tried to rub his face and remembered the wounds on his hands too late. He shook his head and said, “Barbed wire, that’s all.”
Erin said, “He did carry him home, Miles.”
The vampire, after some effort, let Terra go and said, “Can someone cover those blasted windows already?”
Erin ran around the room, closing all of the shutters before going back into the kitchen to get some real bandages, while Kota examined the lacerations on his hands.
“Unicorn blood?” Miles asked after a sniff.
Kota shrugged. “Long story. Should at least keep away infection.”
Erin took his hands and spread the ointment from the first aid kit over the cuts, all the while trying to ignore Kota’s attempts to hide his gasps of pain. While she carefully bandaged his hands, she asked Terra, “So you were working for Elzwig?”
“For the mayor, officially,” Terra said with a shrug. He took the seat on the opposite side of the table and seemed to instantly regret it when Miles took the chair next to him. “The Judge simply added a few notes. I figured there was something going on, but…”
Kota shifted under his gaze, even though he was staring at the polished wooden floorboards. “Sawdust,” he muttered.
Erin glanced down too and said, “You’re not bleeding that much, and I think this should stop it. It’s only a few drops, I can clean that up in just a minute.”
Kota did not answer, but that was because his eyes were nearly shut now and his head was starting to sag forward.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” Terra asked again, with a bit more force since he could actually breathe this time. “Do you realize how stupid this was, keeping this a secret?”
“We were afraid the people in town would…” Erin started.
“Would what?” Miles asked. “Run him out of town? Kill him? Exactly what problem does this town have with irregulars? I’ve never heard of anything happening here before.”
“Well, no, we’ve never really dealt with anyone like this before,” Erin said, but realized that wasn’t true. Mr. Sollis had written about the guests that came into the inn, and at times nearly a third of them probably weren’t even human. They just passed through the inn and never went into town, she supposed.
“Wen warned me, said this town had a bad history,” Kota said, surprising Erin. She thought he had passed out again, but as she finished binding his hands and sat back she could see the small glimmer of his eyes.
“Why would he say that?” Erin asked, and Kota shrugged his limp shoulders.
“This Wen, whatever he remembers, it doesn’t matter, does it?” Miles asked, leaning on the table so that he could get a better look at Kota. “You didn’t want anyone to know long before he warned you.”
“Can you blame me?” Kota said, drawing his legs up into his chair and resting his head on his knees. “I’ve lost count of how many times people have tried to kill me since I got this curse. That’s part of how it works.”
“No home and no sanctuary for the lone wolf,” Miles said, and from her position Erin could see Kota’s eyes widen in shock. “Only death awaits the one who abandons his pack.”
Erin wasn’t sure if Kota was even breathing anymore, and his face had paled. “Sorry, what was that?”
“A saying in the far northern mountains,” Terra said, and this time it was Miles’s turn to look surprised. “Wolves are common there, a real problem this time of year.”
“A bit more than a saying in some places,” Miles said, still staring so hard at Kota that Erin was sure the young man could feel it. “It’s part of a curse in one small village outside the bounds of the empire. Although I think Solkotan here could tell us more about it than I ever could.”