When Erin came back downstairs a few minutes later, Terra and Miles jumped up, and quickly thought up excuses to leave.
“Gotta go and tell the mayor his ‘beast’ has been taken care of,” Terra said, and ruefully looked down at his broken bow. “Guess I can see if he’ll chalk this up to business expense.”
“I don’t know about you two, but some of us have a day to sleep away,” Miles said before stretching and exaggerating a yawn.
“Oh, what did the wizards say about the drawing?” Erin asked.
Miles dropped his arms and shrugged. “Just that it’s an old spell, probably cast when they built the clock tower. Very powerful stuff, maybe even draws on one of the old powers. Which I guess is fascinating enough for them, but not much use to us.”
Erin sighed and missed the glance the other two passed each other before they went their respective ways. She had figured as much, but it was still disappointing to find yet another dead end.
Alone now, and with no guests on the way, Erin had little to look forward to as she wet a rag in the kitchen and returned to the common room with water and soap. Dropping to her knees, she scrubbed at the places where Kota had dripped blood and sighed with relief when it came up rather easily.
As she wiped the floor clean, Erin thought back to how nasty this floor looked when she first arrived and smiled. Even Mr. Sollis himself would have a hard time recognizing the place after all of the cleaning and so many repairs.
“Sawdust,” Erin muttered, recalling Kota’s word. There had been sawdust all over the place, hadn’t there?
She stood and looked around at the floor. Mr. Sollis had never bothered to coat the floor with the stuff before then.
An itching started in Erin’s head as she remembered the blood spot in the clock tower, and Kota’s first thoughts when he uncovered all of the sawdust. You used the stuff to soak up spills, like oil and grease. And blood, Erin added to herself silently, and tried, and failed, to dismiss the thought.
Sollis had drawn the emblem in his journal. The idea, for whatever reason, had mattered enough to him that Erin could not imagine he would not think to go to the clock tower at least once if he even thought it had something to do with the key to breaking his curse, whoever the “he” was that Sollis kept writing about.
Erin paced the floor slowly, looking for a sign of something, anything. If Sollis went to the tower, then it wasn’t that much of a stretch to think he was the one who took whatever had been at the bottom of the fake gear box. The blood there, if he had been bleeding or hurt, where would he have gone then?
Well, Erin knew the first place she or Kota would go. She stopped her pacing occasionally to tap the creaking floorboards with her feet, listening as hard as she could. Near the fireplace, she stopped and tapped again, and then dropped to her knees and rapped on the floor with her knuckles.
Even if Mr. Sollis had been bleeding, there would never have been a need to coat the entire floor with sawdust, not unless he was using it for another reason: to keep someone from looking at it too closely and noticing the clear marks where one of the boards by the fireplace had been ripped up and put back down again.
After struggling with the board a minute, Erin ran into the kitchen and came back with an old butterknife, which she used to lever the board up. In between the joists that supported the floor and the ceiling of the cellar, she could just make out a cloth-wrapped bundle.
Erin reached in, trying not to imagine what else could be under the floor, and grabbed the surprisingly heavy bundle.
“Well, isn’t this convenient timing?”
Erin froze, staring down into the hole and wishing she did not recognize that voice.
“It’s almost like I was waiting for just the right moment,” Lani said with a breathy chuckle.
“What are you doing here?” Erin said as she turned around to face the tamer, careful to keep the bundle out of sight but not as careful to keep the disgust out of her voice.
Lani stood in the middle of the room, but she wasn’t alone. A massive creature, its head coming up to her chest, paced the room behind her on wide, webbed paws that did not make a sound. Its matted fur barely covered a head that ended in a sharp, dangerous beak and did nothing to hide the ribs that stuck out from its sides. A pair of tattered things on its back might have been wings, but Erin doubted they could support anything, much less the creature, even as emaciated as it was.
“A griffin,” Lani said, in response to her stare. “Lost its pride, I think. It was the best I could find in the little time I had, but I think she’ll do.”
“But how…I broke your flute,” Erin said as she slowly got to her feet. The griffin’s yellow eyes watched her every movement, but Erin’s eyes went from it to the open door. She could not believe it managed to fit through the door, much less that she had completely failed to notice their coming in.
“That thing? It just amplified my talents, but don’t you worry, I have her under control.” Lani passed a hand over the griffin’s matted head, and it seemed to briefly shine before she took it away. The griffin growled, a rumbling that shook the floor under Erin’s feet.
“What do you want?” Erin asked, fighting the urge to back away or to look to the stairs. Had Miles or Kota heard that?
“To finish what I came here for,” Lani said and slowly walked up to Erin until they were face to face. “I never did turn in my notice, you know.”
“Leave Kota alone.”
“Oh, yes, Kota.” Lani grinned. “I’ll deal with him later, and it will be delightful, but the wolf was always just a side job. Now, why don’t you be a dear and hand over what you’re hiding behind your back?”
Erin brought her hand around, as fast as she could, and leaned into the punch that knocked Lani right off her feet. Behind her, the griffin roared, shaking the rafters even after the sound died out, and leapt.
Erin dropped and rolled, the floor bouncing as the griffin landed and turned on her, but by then she was already up on her feet.
She obeyed the command without looking back, running through the kitchen because the griffin had the other door blocked and out through the back door. Erin dropped the package into the basket of her bicycle and took off on it, trying to put as much distance between her and the monster tearing its way through the kitchen as fast as she could.
Back at the inn, Lani looked up and smirked at Miles on the top of the stairs before running out the front door. Miles, without hesitation, jumped the stairs and made it as far as the front porch before he had to stagger back inside before the blinding sunlight and laid shivering on the bare floorboards. He barely registered the sound of footsteps clattering down the stairs and, after a pause to check the vampire, out the door as well.