Erin leaned over the handlebars, urging the bike to go faster as she pedaled as hard as she could, but she barely maintained a lead on the griffin. Her only thought was to get away, as fast as possible, somewhere the scraggly thing couldn’t follow. The town and the Farmers’ place were both too far away, even if the griffin couldn’t just bash through the door like it did to the back door of the inn.
With no time to think, Erin swerved toward the nearest cover – the forest. She had barely made it to the shadow of the trees when the back wheel of her bike jerked and flailed underneath her, caught on the claws of the griffin, and then flipped over entirely.
Erin sat up and saw the starved creature shaking its huge paw fiercely, all of its attention devoted to freeing its claws from the rubber tire. It snarled and bit the wheel, with no success.
Erin’s hand touched the bundle she had retrieved from under the floorboards, still wrapped tightly in the faded cloth, and she snapped out of her daze and grabbed it before running into the trees. Behind her, the griffin roared again and there was a scream of metal that suggested Erin’s bike had met its untimely demise.
She darted around trees and through bushes, trying to pick the most narrow openings in the hopes of slowing the griffin down, but by the sound of wood tearing and brush snapping, it didn’t seem to be working.
Unfortunately, it did slow one of them down when Erin’s foot caught a root sticking up out of the ground and she was going too fast to stop herself from hitting the ground with what sounded like a crack from her ankle. The bundle hit the ground and rolled away while Erin curled in on her own personal world of pain that only doubled when she frantically tried to get back up.
The griffin pounded up toward her and stopped, its chest, caved in as it was, unable to fit into the haphazard ring of trees that surrounded Erin. She gasped and leaned away from the gnarled paw that slashed the air, and the griffin snarled again as it began to pace the trees, looking for any way in.
“Oh, you did make this so much harder than it needed to be, didn’t you?”
Erin groaned and looked for a way to stand up as Lani approached the trees. How had she even caught up with them, Erin wondered as she gave up on a branch to support her weight and picked up a stone that looked heavy enough as she said, “What do you want?”
“I told you, that,” Lani said, and pointed at the bundle that lay just out of Erin’s reach. She stepped into the circle and just barely avoided the rock Erin threw at her. “Really? You’ve gone and broken your ankle. I think you might want to rethink fighting me on this.”
“You still haven’t said why you want it,” Erin said, risking the pain to move forward and grab the bundle. “Do you even know what it is?”
“Do you?” Lani leaned over Erin and gently placed a foot on her ankle. “I was hired to do a job, and you’re getting in my way. Please, hand it over.”
Erin did not even have time to respond before Lani applied pressure, just for a second, and the pain nearly caused her to black out. She grabbed the tamer’s leg and pushed as hard as she could, sending Lani stumbling backward.
A growl came from beyond the trees, and Erin had just enough time to realize that it did not come from the griffin before Kota, as a wolf, came darting through the opening in the trees, narrowly avoiding the griffin’s slashing claws and beak.
“Look who’s come to the rescue!” Lani laughed, and did not seem fazed at all by the snarling wolf that stood in front of her. “You think that’s going to scare me?”
The wolf stopped growling and its ears went back, but Erin realized that it wasn’t the tamer’s reaction that surprised Kota, as he suddenly reared back onto two legs and took on the form of a young man. She looked up at the thin cloud that had, however temporarily, overshadowed the sun.
“No, I don’t think I’m going to scare you,” Kota said, and smiled. “You want this, right?”
Lani looked at the bundle and nodded, matching Kota’s smile with one of her own. “That’s a good boy. You hand that over, and my new pet and I will let you two leave. Promise and everything.”
Kota knelt down in front of Erin and glanced at her ankle before he said, “Well?”
“Kota,” Erin protested. She noticed that the bandages on Kota’s hands were stained red and she swallowed before dropping her voice to a whisper that she didn’t think Lani would be able to hear. “I think this is the key, the one Mr. Sollis wrote about. What if it could break your curse?”
His smile failed to change. “I know, but we can’t exactly take it out of here, can we?”
“You know?” As soon as she said it, Erin remembered Kota staring at the floorboards back at the inn, when she thought he was falling asleep. He had put it together just as fast as she did, and had even given her a hint. “Then why didn’t you say something?”
“Wasn’t sure,” he said with a shrug. “Didn’t want to disappoint you then, don’t want to see you get hurt now. So please?”
Erin stared at him and fought the urge to yell at him. How could he be so calm, so willing to just give up the one thing he had come here for? Finally, after an internal struggle not to throw it at his head, she passed him the bundle, which he immediately turned around and gave to Lani.
“Beautiful,” she said as she pulled away the faded cloth and dropped it on the ground, revealing a perfectly round orb the size of her palm that glowed with a fiery light which flickered and burned like the sun had been sealed inside of it. “Every bit of what I imagined. Pleasure doing business with you, Kota. Don’t suppose you would be willing to rethink my other proposition?”
Kota glared at her and she shrugged before raising her free hand in the air and snapping her fingers. Almost immediately, her griffin stopped its restless pacing and sat with the same upright bearing as a statue.
“If you ever rethink it, I’ll be glad to come back around,” Lani said, patting Kota on top of the head before walking away, the griffin obediently shadowing her steps.
Kota waited until Lani was out of eyesight before stooping down to look at Erin’s ankle again. He hissed and said, “We’re going to need a doctor for this.”
“And how do you think we’ll get to her?” Erin asked. She reached out and picked up the cloth that was all she had left from Kota’s one possible cure. It was old and faded, but she thought she could just make out a starry pattern on what may once have been some kind of scarf or handkerchief. “It’s not like anyone from town is about to come this far into the forest–”
She stopped, her breath catching at the words as her heart started pounding. They were in the forest. She had run straight in without thinking, and now her wide eyes stared around, terrified at what might be lurking just out of sight.
Kota noticed she was starting to panic and tried to distract her. “That stone, why do you think it was hidden in the clock tower?”
“No one in town likes magic,” Erin said, as her fingers dug into the ground. “You heard my dad, it always causes trouble. And that thing had to be magic.”
“It’s okay,” Kota said when Erin jumped at the sound of something stirring. “Why hide it though? Why there?”
“In case they needed it? I don’t know, how are we going to get out of here?”
“So they left signs,” Kota said, his eyes scanning the area as he came up with a plan, or at least that’s what Erin hoped he was doing. “Sun and moon. Like that story you told the wayfarers.”
“You remember that?” Erin asked, her face flushing red for a different reason now. “Yeah, that’s just a story Wen told me when I was little.”
Kota started and looked at her, but his gaze soon went up to the sky and he had just enough time to say, “Wait here,” before the sun came back out and the wolf took over.
Erin gasped and cried out, but that was because the wolf turned and ran off, leaving her alone in the forest.