“Solkotan?” Erin said, and she and Terra both looked at Kota, who pulled his legs closer to his body and buried his face in his knees.
“Solkotan Volkov,” Kota said, and chuckled in a way that did not sound like he was very happy. “That’s my full name. But how do you know it?”
“I had a little free time up in the mountains, when I wasn’t trying to track down a crazed hatter dealing illegal potions,” Miles said. “Long story short, I asked a few questions and didn’t get as many answers as I would have liked. I think it’s time you told us how you got your curse, Solkotan.”
“Kota,” Kota snapped the word out, and his eyes flashed as he looked up at Miles for the first time. “Just…Kota, okay?”
He sighed and ran a bandaged hand over his face, stopping at the mark above his left eye before he began to speak.
“Well, like you said, I come from a small village, just outside of your Empire and too small to be noticed. There, in the mountains, it’s similar to your forest. There’s more than just wolves and deer to deal with. Spirits, beasts, ‘irregulars’ like you call them, and like here they’re everywhere.”
“No, they’re in the forest,” Erin said, ignoring the glare Miles sent her at the interruption.
“Really? You’ve seen Voi, and there’s a lot more than him hanging around this old inn,” Kota said. “You have a phoenix in your clock tower, a troll under your bridge, and I’m fairly sure there’s more than a few spirits hanging around just your father’s forge.” Kota shrugged at Erin’s expression. “You don’t see them, but they’re here all the same. In the village, the smaller spirits assist just about everywhere.
“It’s the wild ones that they have more trouble with. Cut the wrong tree, stray into the barren rocks unbidden, or disrespect the mer, and it could bring trouble on you or even the whole village, and that was just the spirits. Creatures like the cannishifts, the worst sort of goblin, and griffins didn’t need much of an excuse to play havoc with our lives.”
Miles leaned back in his chair and said, “Of course, your village must have had a way of dealing with them. Hunters?”
“For some, yes, but we had…I suppose you would call them tamers,” Kota stopped and chuckled. “Maybe not tamer, they weren’t much like Lani. Our tamers could see the spirits and speak to them, in a way.”
“You were a tamer,” Erin said, thinking of how Voi came out only for Kota. Even the way Arlo and Kota looked at each other, it seemed like the two were thinking the same thing.
Kota nodded. “So was my father. There were a few others in the village, but none of them had the gift like him.”
“They said he saved the village more times than anyone could count,” Miles said, studying Kota’s face closely. “Even the king of the mountain knew his name. They talked and talked about him, but you know, none of them would tell me how he died.”
“Of course they would’’t!” The anger that flashed across Kota’s face reminded Erin fiercely of the wolf under Lani’s spell. “You want to know how he died? Two years ago, on midwinter’s eve, the leaders of the village went with him for the annual ritual in the barren stones. A beast, unlike anything they had seen before, had sheltered in the stones. It was hungry, and terrified, and lashed out at them, and the leaders fought back. My father tried to stop them, and he was hurt in the process. So what did they do? They left him there.”
Shaking, Kota buried his head in his knees again, but continued to speak, “And they came back, and they lied to me, told me the beast had killed him, when they left him to freeze in the dark with no one to help.”
“How did you find out the truth?” Miles asked, and it was Erin’s turn to glare at him.
“I went to him, of course. The wound that killed him, all of them, came from weapons, not from that poor creature that had huddled with him, trying to keep each other warm enough to survive the night.” Kota looked up, this time at Erin, with eyes red from holding back tears. “You remember when you asked when was the last time I was so angry I couldn’t think?”
Erin nodded, but she couldn’t bring herself to say anything.
“I don’t even remember walking back to the village, or what I did. They said I would have killed someone if they hadn’t been able to knock me out.” Kota turned his gaze back to his knees. “That’s when they gave me a choice.”
“To stay in the village that abandoned your father, or live as an outcast under their curse.” Kota nodded in response and Miles stood up and slowly walked around the table. “Easy to see which choice you made.”
“This mark on my face once represented my family line,” Kota said, touching it again. “Now I’m all that’s left, and it’s just a reminder of what that place took from me.”
“That’s not the choice they gave you though, is it?” Miles stopped in front of Kota’s chair and crossed his arms as he looked down at him. “You’re a tamer, and they need their tamers just to survive. I doubt they were about to give you up. So why did they put the curse on you?”
“In case I escaped,” Kota whispered, and clenched his hands despite the pain from the cuts. “Once I left the village, the curse would start.”
“And a curse like that would only have one way to break it,” Miles said, this time glancing at Erin.
She had listened to this whole exchange in increasing horror, and thought she knew what Miles meant. “It would only stop if you went back.”
Kota swallowed and nodded, unable to speak.
“You weren’t afraid someone would kill you,” Terra said, catching on. “You were afraid they would return you.”
“We would never have done that,” Erin protested. She put a hand on Kota’s shaking shoulder. “I promise, I would never let someone do that to you.”
“And if we’ve learned anything, it’s that she’s stubborn enough to keep her word,” Miles said, earning a small, fleeting grin from Kota. “Erin, do you think you can help Kota get up to his room? I think he could use some rest.”
“Yeah, sure,” Erin said quickly. She really did have to help Kota stand, and together they staggered up the stairs to his room.
“Heartwarming,” Terra said as they watched them go up. He turned back to Miles and added, “But you don’t look so sure.”
“Observant, aren’t you?” Miles flopped down into Kota’s vacant chair and let his head roll over to look at the hunter. “I got the villagers to tell me a little more about Kota’s curse, after some persuading, and asked the wizards at the city about it last night while I had their attention. This sort of curse is made to escalate after a year, to force him to come back any way possible. Kota escaped from his village one year after his father’s death, on last midwinter’s day.”
Terra groaned, already seeing where this was going. “Escalate how?”
Miles glanced back at the stairs to make sure Kota and Erin were still out of earshot. “I don’t know, but if a cure is not found, Kota may have no choice but to return to his village by midwinter’s day.”