Wen’s weathered, tanned face broke out into a smile at the sight of Erin. “Well, isn’t this a treat. What brings you all the way here from your inn?”
Erin couldn’t help but smile in return before she remembered why she was here. How long had it been since she’d sat here by the river, feeding ducks while Wen told one of his stories? Well, not that long ago when she thought about it, but it felt like forever ago. “Wen, do you remember that story you told me a long time ago, about the sun and the moon?”
The smile faded, however briefly, from Wen’s face and she thought she saw something else there before he could hide it. “Yes, I remember. What made you think of that?”
“I saw the drawing in Mr. Sollis’s journal,” she said. His eyebrows bunched together and she explained, or at least tried to, “The town emblem, the sun and the moon, I saw it there and above the stone from the tower–”
Wen’s eyes widened and he stepped closer. “What?”
Erin had not meant to say that, but now she had the same feeling as when she put together where Sollis had hid the stone. “Mr. Sollis kept writing about someone in his journal, someone who was cursed.”
Wen pulled his wide-brimmed hat low over his face and looked away. “I think that’s enough, Miss Smith.”
“You know something,” Erin said, undeterred. “Who was he? Why was Mr. Sollis looking so hard for a cure? Something in that clock tower hurt him, and the first thing he did was hide that stone from somebody. Why?”
“Because he was my friend,” Wen said, and looked back at Erin with teary eyes. “Because he found out who I am, what I am, and he wouldn’t let it go. Please, don’t make the same mistake.”
Erin stared at his back, unable to think of anything to say. Old Wen, always there. Always ready with a story and a smile. He had as been as much a constant in her life as any other member of her family after he saved her from drowning in the river when she was a kid, and in all that time she had never seen anything like the hurt in his eyes before. His curse, and she knew exactly where to find the key to breaking it.
Wen did not turn around at the sound of Erin scrambling up the bank or racing over the bridge, but he did raise his head at the racing steps that followed a minute later and saw Kota pelting as fast as he could after her.
Erin only ran faster when she spotted the tamer standing in the town circle, just outside of the mayor’s office. The man himself was shaking her hand, and he looked almost as surprised as her to see Erin slowing to a stop just a few feet away.
“Oh, look who didn’t listen to my warning,” Lani said. “Good recovery on that ankle.”
“Shut up,” Erin snapped.
“Erin? This is a bit of a personal matter,” Geld said, his smile obviously forced. “If this is about the rent, maybe you could wait until later?”
“The stone,” she said. “The one you sent Lani after, where is it?”
She saw the mayor’s hand go to his pocket and stepped forward only for the tamer to block her way and say, “That’s enough out of you, I think. Mr. Mayor, you want me to deal with this?”
“I told you to keep her and the boy out of this,” Geld said, and looked baffled when Lani laughed. “It’s bad enough Daniel got involved.”
“Involved? Is that what you call killing someone over a stone?” Erin fought the urge to push the tamer out of the way and just take the stone, if only because she knew the griffin had to be somewhere nearby. When he started to protest, she said, “Blood at the clock tower, and you knew Mr. Sollis had found it. He never told anyone, never even had any time to write a note, but you knew where Lani should look, didn’t you?”
“That was an accident,” Geld said, eyeing the crowd of townspeople who were being attracted by the scene. “I mean, Sollis’s death was just an accident. Everyone knows that.”
“No, everyone knows he died from a heart attack out in the yard, because that’s what you told everyone after you ‘found’ his body,” Erin said, biting back the bile rising in her throat. Everything in the mayor’s demeanor, from his shifty expression to his nervous rocking on his feet, confirmed every word she said even as he fumbled for an answer.
“Oh, you do know how to put your foot in it, don’t you?” Lani said. “Just tell her you let the man die because you didn’t realize he had managed to get to the stone until after she’d already set up in the inn and you couldn’t look for it yourself. Not like she or wolf boy won’t be able to connect the dots on their own.”
“Wolf boy?” Geld asked, if only because he couldn’t say what he wanted to with others listening.
“Oi, Erin!” Terra came running across the square, waving and smiling even as he scanned the growing crowd and no doubt spotted Lani. “Are you okay?”
“Well, this is just getting impossible,” Lani said and rolled her eyes. “If it’s all the same to you, Geld, I’ll be taking my money and going now.”
“No you don’t,” Geld hissed and grabbed her wrist. “You’re going to help me blow this over, and now.”
Lani stopped and glared at the little man. “Well, the easiest way to get people to forget something they might have heard is to distract them. Let me handle that.”
She raised a hand to her mouth and gave a loud, piercing whistle. A loud roar came from the alley behind the inn and when the mayor turned, she twisted his hand until he released her wrist and ran. He cried out in pain and turned to yell after the tamer only to have his pocket picked by Erin.
“Her griffin,” Erin told Terra just as the monster itself came tearing around the corner, its beak dripping as it looked around. It spotted Erin and, perhaps because it remembered the one who got away in the forest or just because she was closest, ran for her first.
The townspeople screamed and scattered, but Terra had enough presence of mind to push Erin out of the griffin’s path. The griffin’s claws scraped on the stone as it spun around and came for them again. Erin, Terra, and Geld, the only ones still left out in the open, ran for the mayor’s office but as soon as Geld was inside he turned and flung the door shut in their faces.
“Wonderful man,” Terra muttered as they turned and ran down the street.
“You don’t know the half of it,” Erin gasped out as they darted through one street after another. She was already starting to fall behind, and her ankle throbbed as if it had been broken again.
Terra looked over his shoulder and grabbed the nearest thing to hand, a broom left by the terrified shopkeeper now hiding behind his counter, and swung it at the griffin’s head. With an undignified squawk, it backed away and then swatted at the hunter with one of its vast paws. A crack accompanied the broom’s demise, leaving Terra holding two pieces of wood, one of which he threw at the griffin for all the good it did.
The griffin snarled but stumbled when Kota, as a wolf, tackled it. The wolf growled and snapped at the griffin’s ears, before jumping back to avoid the griffin’s beak.
“Attaboy,” Terra said, before the wolf stumbled and Kota turned back into a man. Just as the griffin lurched toward him, the hunter used what remained of the broom to whack the griffin on its lion hindquarters.
Terra and Kota circled the griffin, keeping it turning and unable to focus on one or the other, but Erin knew this could only last for so long before someone got hurt. She looked around and, recognizing what street they were on, ran into a nearby shop and came back out a minute later with her arms full of badly wrapped packages.
She took one and threw it at the griffin’s head, where it burst open and dropped a pile of raw meat onto the ground. The griffin immediately snapped it up and turned, searching for more.
“Kota!” Erin yelled and tossed him another package. “Lead it back to the town circle, the long way!”
Kota looked at her, baffled, but did not argue. He waved the meat in front of the griffin’s beak and ran as fast as he could with it right on his tail while Erin went the direct way with Terra following behind.
They raced across the street and Erin opened the door of the clock tower and threw the rest of the meat into the center of the stone floor. She fumbled with the lock and, before Terra could ask, they heard the clatter of paws on the stone street above the sound of screams and shouts. She waved at the wolf running their way, the package of meat dangling from a string in its mouth.
“In here!” Erin yelled and, as soon as Kota was close enough, she grabbed the meat from him, waved it in the griffin’s direction, and threw it into the clock tower. The griffin, acting on stomach alone, followed the meat into the tower and dove at the pile, oblivious to the sound of the heavy metal door clanging shut until it was too late.
“That might actually hold it,” Terra said, and then glanced down at the wolf and the gathering townspeople. “But I think we have another problem now.”