Episode 1 Chapter 6

Watchmen rushed across the train platform, loading equipment and barrels into cargo cars and helped one another into plated armor. University wizards, in their long burgundy robes, fussed to hook canisters of condensed magic to the hulking engine. The lead engineer appeared with a runed rod in hand. He tapped each canister, and the train roared to life. Acrid, rust-colored fumes belched from the smokestack. It filled the air with the scent of spent magic: like copper and cranberries.

If there was any consolation in Theodore’s predicament, it was that he got to see the train. When it was unveiled years ago, the newspaper proclaimed it a triumph of modern engineering. It was a leap beyond the city’s enchanted trolley network and would bring even greater prosperity by making the transport of harvested magic fast and efficient. It was the future.

Which was why the condition of the mangled machine sitting in the depot came as a shock. Paint was stripped in clawing streaks. Burns, dents and pock marks peppered the hull. Windows were cracked or shattered. Iron patchwork was welded onto the original frame. This product of the greatest minds of Laien looked like it had rolled through a war zone.

A woman swaggered up to Theodore, rattling in a gilded but battered suit of armor which appeared much like the train. Her shoulders were broad and her forearms were thick as girders. She had dark hair cropped short. The scar training down her face from eyebrow to chin failed to distract from her manic smile. She pulled Theodore into a wrenching handshake before he had a chance to say anything.

“Myra Redriver!” She said. “Captain of the Watch. You must be our new Ranger Deputy.”

Theodore extracted himself from the handshake before his wrist shattered. “Er, yes. Good day, madam.”

“You’re skinnier than I expected. Would’ve taken you for a cargo inspector if not for the uniform.” She rubbed her chin with calloused hands. “Got your father’s nose. Not much else, though. That’s a pity. He was a fine specimen if you don’t mind me speaking off the record.” She laughed. “Aw. Don’t look so sour. I’m sure if you inherited half of what Lance had to offer, you’re twice a man over.”

Theodore sucked air through his teeth. He looked to change the subject. “This locomotive travels through the Whirlwood?”

“Just to the Fount. Once a month, we escort a bunch of University eggheads, and they operate the equipment which collects the magic radiation. Then we haul it all back to the city so we can power trolleys, trains, lamp posts, factories, you name it. No small job. Whole city would grind to a halt without us here. You’re supposed to double check our numbers so the King knows no one is skimming off the top.”

“Yes, I’ve read my job description,” Theodore said.

“Good!” Myra slapped a heavy hand across his shoulder, almost knocking him over. “I certainly didn’t know what the hell I was doing when I was your age. Minding the details should make you a fine officer.”

Or it would help him escape, Theodore thought.

Lieutenant Fritz grabbed Theodore’s suitcases. “Let’s board. I’d like a seat that’s still got glass in the windows.”


Episode 1 Chapter 7

Theodore was sandwiched between rows of knights, canned in full plate mail regalia like a flock of steel coated peacocks. Myra and Fritz sat opposite of him inside the train, with Theodore seated by the window.

“Where are the university staff and sorcerers?” Theodore said.

“The stuffed shirts get their own cars up front,” Fritz said. Theodore opted not to express how much he’d rather be sitting with them.

The train whistle shrieked, and the locomotive rumbled to life. The city walls drifted out of sight to give way to farmland, manors, and country villages. They picked up speed as the tracks dipped downhill. The train roared as it plunged into the woodland, tearing through branches and overgrowth in a blur of greens and browns. They slowed to a safer clip, trundling through a parade of trees.

“How far do we need to travel?” Theodore’s sense of dread grew as he watched the capital fade into the distance.

“We’ll arrive at the center. It’s not too long,” Myra said. “We’ll overshoot your office, but it’s safer than walking the whole route on foot.”

This did not put Theodore at ease. He studied the forest through the window and contemplated his plan. Barricade himself indoors until he found a loophole. Then he would somehow need to get back to the city unharmed.

The train lurched to a hissing halt, and Theodore was nearly thrown from his seat.

“We’ve stopped,” Theodore said.

Fritz offered a look of mock surprise. “Not on the job yet and already you’re a detective.”

A strong wind howled across the trail, rattling the train on its tracks. Theodore twisted in his seat and pressed his nose against the cold window. All he could see was tangled tree limbs and fog.

Myra pulled the car bay door open, and knights lined up to disembark. She pounded a fist and her troops piled out onto the ground.

 “Check the front.” Myra ordered. “With any luck it’s just a unicorn on the tracks again.”

There was another blast of wind, forcing everyone to brace themselves against the hull of the train car. The mist, drifting among the trees, began to pour out from the woods. It turned dark and heavy, swamping around the ankles of the knights and covering every inch of ground in dancing black vapor.

“Is that… normal?” Theodore asked, panic rising in his voice. “That doesn’t seem normal!”

“Well, it’s fairly routine at this point,” Myra said.

 Theodore eased in his seat. “Then we’re safe.”

“I didn’t say that.” She pulled out her sword and tossed the scabbard aside. “Stay close to me so you don’t get yourself killed.”


She leapt outside to join her men. Theodore leaned out the door, looking down at the rising soup of gloom as if it were boiling lava.

Fritz sighed. “It’s harmless, you oaf. Ghasts are obsessed with theatrics. Get down here!”

Theodore climbed down the railing, goose pimples rolling over his skin. “You know what’s causing this?”

“Repeat trouble maker,” Myra said before turning to her men. “You know the drill! Buddy up and spread out! If you’ve got a silver sword, make sure you’ve got someone at your side with iron, and vice versa! Eyes open!” She waved, and they dispersed.

Fritz glanced at Theodore’s belt. “Did you even bring a weapon?”

“Ah…” Theodore had not planned to stay long enough to need one, but now felt a fool. “They were supposed to furnish me on site?”

The lieutenant scoffed and offered the hilt of a hunting knife. Theodore hesitated. He couldn’t imagine using it but could not bring himself to argue.

“Come on, then.” Fritz said. Theodore followed behind as they ambled along the length of the train, eyes scanning the fog. Theodore clutched the knife and stumbled, unable to see his footing. When they reached the front, it was clear why they had come to a stop: tree roots had somehow sprung from the ground and entangled the wheels of the engine car. The conductor was already hard at work hacking the growths away with a hatchet.

Something moved and caught Theodore’s eye. He squinted and wiped his glasses on his sleeve. It was a man. Only it wasn’t. It was hunched over, with arms and legs too long, draped in ragged cloth. Heart racing, he struggled out the words: “What is that?!”

The party turned to face the creature. Fog swirled and rippled around it. It jerked closer, its fingers slender, bladed, its skin gnarled like tree bark.

“Turn… back…” It spoke like a ghost someone pushed down a well. “You… are not welcome. Leave, and never befoul this seat of magic again…!”

The Captain rolled her eyes and mimed a yapping mouth with her hand. A few knights snickered.

The creature let out a piercing shriek. “Do not mock me!”

“Cut the stage show, Silas!” Myra said. “We’ve a right to harvest magic! If you’ve got a problem with it, talk to your chieftain. Now clear off. We’ve got a schedule to keep!”

The creature, Silas, pointed a clawed hand. “Kill the humans!”


Episode 1 Chapter 8

Creatures poured out from beyond the curtain of fog. Trolls, hurling themselves forward on burly arms, lollopped onto the train track tracks with smaller creatures clinging to their backs. Flying creatures, furies, screamed out from the treetops from every direction. The knights readied their swords.

Theodore could not help but think about how, if this were any normal Thursday, he would be working the office printing press at around this time to make fresh copies of various forms. It was tedious and took hours, but he would give anything to be doing that instead right now. A fireball whizzed overhead, and he decided it would be best to stand behind some of the more imposing knights before something killed him.

The trolls swung their heavy arms and the knights darted out of the way to cut grazing strikes across their scaly flesh. Foxes, squirrels and rabbits leapt off the backs of the shoulders of the hulking reptiles and scratched and bit anyone they could pounce on. One of the younger knights screamed across the field, collecting squirrels faster than he could yank them off.

Furies dove from overhead, wailing like angry cats. They were man sized bird people, four of them, with wings instead of arms. They shrieked, swooping to claw and rip with talons and knock knights onto their backs. A barrage of crossbow bolts grounded one and sent the rest into retreat.

Distracted by the melee, none of the combatants noticed a willowy nymph sneaking between the trees. He wore a coat of moss, and his skin was white with dark streaks like birch bark. He placed a hand against a tree and the ground began to rumble. Tree roots erupted from the soil and lashed at the knights, until a few well aimed sword strikes managed to cut the tendrils down to size.

The trolls took this chance to grab gnomes off their backs and pitch them onto the field. The little hedgehog people scampered between the ankles of Myra’s troops, casting spells as they went. Fritz froze in place, paralyzed just as he was about to wind up an attack. Others were transformed into rats, their armor collapsing into noisy heaps on top of them.

Silas drifted closer, gliding across the black vapors. He grabbed at the men turned rats and took them into the folds of his coat. Myra charged, bashing the monster in the face with her shield until he dropped his victims. He grabbed hold of the shield, laughing as she strained against his strength. His legs and arms grew long and wiry, jointed like spider limb. He hurled her away with one shove. He waded out into the brawl, laughing as he swept aside friends and foes alike. The combatants scattered as he spat fire from his mouth.

“Where are our wizards?!” Fritz yelled over the din, still paralyzed. “We need support!”

Theodore had been staring at the battle, stunned in fear and awe. He glanced back at the train, and noticed a banging coming from within one of the cars. Tangled vines webbed over the bay door, holding it shut while muffled cries came from inside. He ran and chopped at the growths with his knife until they snapped apart. The door slid open to reveal a squad of sorcerers in burgundy robes.

The wizards pushed past Theodore and scrambled to form up. They crushed small shards of crystal in their palms and gestured with their staves. The weapons of the knights lit up at once.

“About time!” Myra shouted, taking her shimmering sword in both hands. She charged, shrugging off a spray of flames and slamming her blade into the underbelly of Silas. The monster reeled backwards like a toy, its legs sprawling like a wet spider.

The tide turned. The remaining knights, with magic coursing through their weapons, pushed the creatures back. Their line broke into a full retreat, as the animals, trolls, gnomes, furies and nymphs all fled into the Whirlwood.

“Damned cowards!” Silas said. Before the knights could come to finish him, he sank into his dark mists and vanished. The fog dissipated with him, leaving only bare ground and sunshine.


Episode 1 Chapter 9

In the quiet after the battle, the knights collected the wounded. Fritz, whose body was still paralyzed by magic, had to be hefted aboard like a sculpture by a team of watchmen. Theodore assisted by carrying the armor of a man who had been transformed into a field mouse. Once the last of the vines and roots had been cleared away, the train rumbled back to life and carried them deeper into the Whirlwood.

The medic surveyed the damage to the men. “The creatures are getting bolder.” He was a freckled old wizard tasked with undoing the spells and mending wounds. “Or you all are getting sloppy. Six knights enchanted? And you got yourself elf-shot. This will be an embarrassing report!”

“Shut up!” Fritz said. The knights had propped him up against a window. “If you bathrobes had been on the job, this wouldn’t have happened!”

“Hold still.” The medic said. He moved to place his hand on Fritz’s shoulder, but hesitated. “That was a joke, lad. You ought to laugh.”

Fritz sneered. “Ha. Ha.” There was a pop of magic and Fritz toppled over, his enchantment broken.

“What was that creature?” Theodore said, helping Fritz into his seat.

“Silas Jack,” Myra said. She was cutting wedges off a hunk of cheese and handing it out to her men. “He’s a ghast. Y’know, the sort of devils we used to go to war before the peace treaties. Not that those mean much to the likes of him. He’s talked a whole mess of creatures into going wicked. They call themselves the Red Caps.”

Theodore waved away the offered snack. He felt sick, wondering how long he stood to survive in this savage place. “He coordinated an assault and ambush. We could have been killed!””

The captain popped the cheese into her mouth and chewed. “It’s fine. I’ll die of embarrassment before that uppity spook gets the best of us.” She glanced out the window as the train carriage ground to a halt, the engine wheezing one last gasp of spent magic. “We’re here.”

The station platform overlooked the valley floor from a ridge. Below, the woods parted to reveal a deep quarry carved out with pits and ravines. This was the Fount: a wellspring of wild magic so rich it was the envy of all other kingdoms. Theodore peered down, and marveled. Layers of flowing, shimmering gas swirled in each well like a miasma. His eyes and nostrils stung trying to perceive it, to try and tell its color or shape even from this distance. It was invisible, yet so thick and concentrated it bordered on the edge of tangible. Around him, sorcerers and university interns strapped on protective smocks and breathing masks and set to work collecting the harvest.

Fritz joined him, rolling his still-stiff shoulder. “You ever see them gather it before?”

Theodore shook his head. “I’ve only read about it. From what I understand, we leave hermetic inverter modules down there to soak up the thaumaturgic radiation. Once it’s concentrated, it calcifies into crystals which can be purified for safe use by human sorcerers.”

“Alright, nerd,” Fritz said. “I learned to swing a sword so I didn’t have to think about any of that. Here’s a secret: only thing you need to know is that it makes things go, and that means money.”

Fritz started coughing, and moved away from the ridge to escape the magic soaked air.

“It’s more than just that!” Theodore said. “It’s a marvel of engineering. Do you know how much more cost effective this is than digging up fossilized magic? Laien owes its prosperity to this technology, and it’s all thanks to research conducted by the university!”

Theodore realized, with a flash of embarrassment, that the Lieutenant was laughing at him.

“Whatever you say,” Fritz said. “Just keep in mind that all this fancy tech wouldn’t do anyone any good if it weren’t for people like you and me keeping the bathrobes safe.”

Theodore frowned. Nothing said it had to be him. There were others better suited to the work.

“You about ready?” Fritz said. “Captain has me on orders to walk you to your office, and I’d like to get that done before the train leaves.”

Theodore took a deep breath. “Let’s go.”


Episode 1 Chapter 10

The branches of the Whirlwood webbed into a canopy above, reaching out in wild curls and twists, filtering the daylight into rays of sunshine. Corkscrew willows, live oaks, and the occasional pine filled the woods, surrounding the rambling trail. The fresh air did not agree with Theodore’s lungs, which had grown accustomed to dusty, neglected office spaces. He wasn’t allergic or asthmatic, but he felt it was never too late to learn.

“Drafted, huh?” Fritz said. He had been kind enough to carry Theodore’s suitcases for him. “That’s rough, pal. No wonder you’re so out of place. I don’t envy you. Ranger Deputy has got to be the worst post in the kingdom. You’re out here all by yourself. Even if you didn’t have to worry about ghasts, you still have fairies who’ll want to magic you. And the animals are all wrong too. Once the magic gets inside them, they start talking and acting like they’re people. You know the last few guys they assigned out here went missing, right? It’s a death trap if you ask me.”

Somehow the Lieutenant’s sympathy failed to comfort Theodore. They splashed through a shallow creek, and Theodore found himself glancing around the too-quiet woods, wondering what might be out there. He touched the knife tucked into his belt, nervous, only to remember that it did not belong to him.

“I forgot to return this to you,” Theodore said, offering the knife.

“Keep it.” Fritz shrugged. “You did us a solid back in the fight. Besides: I think you’re going to need it more than me.”

While no less anxious, Theodore felt grateful. “Thank you.”

They continued on in silence, until Fritz decided he felt like talking.

“I knew this guy, right? A fairy offered to make him strong enough to cut through stone. Think it was a nymph, maybe a pooka, I don’t know. I wasn’t there. Anyway, thing is, the idiot took the deal. Guy couldn’t handle his sword without snapping it in half. Couldn’t eat without breaking bowls and plates and tables no matter how gentle he tried to be. Took the healers weeks to dissolve the spell. Then there was this private who…”

Both of them stopped in their tracks. Ahead, a grove of trees looked as though it had been set to torch. Several of the trees looked as if something big had torn them open, clawed and gutted. Theodore stepped across the burnt grass and bent down to find toy sized furniture strewn about and broken.

“Hey! Hello! Hi!”

Startled, Theodore looked up to see an iron birdcage dangling from a low hanging tree branch. A bluebird inside cocked its head at him.

“Can you help me? Please? I’m trapped in here and I really want out!” The little bird spoke with a woman’s voice, high and bright.

Fritz bent down behind him to whisper. “Do not engage. Just keep walking.”

“Okay.” Theodore stood up. They passed the cage, and the bird flapped, bouncing around the inside and sending the whole cage swinging.

“Wait!! Don’t go! They locked me in here and no one will help me! I’m all alone! I don’t want to die! Please! WAIT!!”

Theodore stopped, guilt clenching his throat. He looked back.

“It’s a trick,” Fritz said. “Let’s go.”

“What if it’s not?” Theodore said.

“Then it’s a stupid feral that managed to get itself trapped. Not our problem.”

Fritz moved on. Theodore tried to do the same, but felt haunted. He turned back and reached out to open the cage’s door. It was locked.

“What’s wrong?” the bluebird asked. “Oh no. Oh no. It won’t open?! Can you break it?! I don’t want to starve in here!”

Fritz dropped the suitcases with a huff and called back at them. “You’re going to get yourself killed!”

Theodore pulled a couple pins out from his hair. He still remembered when his father tried to teach him lock picking. It was something Theodore never felt comfortable learning, but Lance was insistent that it was a skill even a knight might need. He probed with the hairpins, getting a feel for the mechanism. The lock was simple, and the bolt gave without much fight. The birdcage swung open, and Theodore wondered if this really would get him killed.


Episode 1 Chapter 11

The bluebird fluttered, thrashing around in its cage before managing to work itself out the open door. It flew circles around Fritz and Theodore, cheering.

“Ohh! Ohh!! It’s good to get out of there! Wow!” She found a perch on Theodore’s shoulder. “Thank you! A whole lot of thank yous! You’re the first person who even tried to let me out! It really sucked in there, but you’re really nice! Do you want to be friends? I want to be friends. I hear nice people make good friends.”

“Great. Now you’ve done it,” Fritz said. “It wants to be your friend.”

“W-what should I do?” Theodore was too scared to move.

Fritz grabbed a stick and prodded it off Theodore’s shoulder. It toppled off him and fluttered into the air. That was their cue to make a break for it. They sprinted along the trail, only for the bird to fly after and alongside them with great effort.

“Whoa. You’re in a hurry!” She was chipper. “Where are you going?”

Theodore glared at her. “Home! You ought to do the same!”

“Okay! I’ll come with you.”

Fritz slapped his own face. “Argh!” They slowed to a walk once it was clear they weren’t going to escape, and the bluebird reattached itself to Theodore’s shoulder.

“Don’t make eye contact,” Fritz said. “Maybe it will go away.”

“That’s mean!” She said. “No one ever wants to be my friend! Don’t mess this up for me!!” She turned back towards Theodore, leaning to look him in the eye.

“Do you like apples?” she said.

Theodore said nothing, trying to take an intense interest in a fern growing on the side of the trail.

“What’s your favorite sort of apple?”

Theodore shooed her away. “I hate apples.”

The little bird gasped and plopped onto the ground like a half-inflated ball. “Whoa!” It hopped to its feet and skittered along the ground after him. “That’s so weird!! I thought everybody liked apples! Me, I like green ones, but also red ones. How do you feel about bread? Do you like bread?”

Fritz took this opportunity to stomp on the bird.

Theodore bit his lip. “You didn’t have to kill it.”

“Had to be done,” Fritz said, and pried a flat mangled blue disc off the bottom of his boot. “Creatures can play friendly but there’s no telling what they’re capable of.”

Theodore looked at the mess with a mix of disgust and pity. Then, to his surprise, there was a twitch and it popped back to is normal proportions. The little bird wobbled, disoriented, and shook itself back to sense.

“Ow! That hurt! Be more careful!!”

Fritz groaned. “Oh Mother of Magic, what did you get us into?”

“I’m sorry!” Theodore said, not even sure of what to feel anymore. “I thought it was just a normal talking bird!”

“Oh hey.” The bird perked its head towards the end of the trail. It opened onto a clearing. “Is that where you live??”

The two men looked. Ahead sat a stone cottage with a thatched roof and a yard drowning in weeds. Fritz waded out into the overgrowth. “Here you are. Home sweet home.”


Episode 1 Chapter 12

Theodore turned the key to find the cottage door unlocked, but stuck. He pressed his shoulder into the door, straining to force it open. It wasn’t until Fritz joined him that it gave with a sharp crack.

The interior was a disaster. Cobwebs had taken over, coating the walls in layers. Light streaked through cracked window shutters. There was a steady drip in the ceiling despite the lack of rain. Furniture and filing cabinets were upended and splintered. Books and paperwork were strewn across the floor in tatters. Whatever happened to the former Ranger Deputy, it seemed his office had been picked over.

The bird followed them inside, gaping. “You have ceilings?? I’m jealous.”

Theodore moved through disheveled rooms: an office foyer, a kitchen, and an upstairs bedroom. All things considered, it was far grander than the garret he had been renting in the city. It was even a bit too large for one person.

“What a dump,” Fritz said.

Theodore rubbed his chin. “It will take a few days work to get it presentable.”

“Well, don’t look at me.” Fritz set the suitcases down by the door. “I’ve got a train to catch. My orders were to escort you here. Nothing more.”

“Oh!! I’ll help!” the little bird said. “Let me help! I’m great at everything!!” She scampered up to a toppled bookcase and struggled to lift it.

Fritz offered a sideways smirk. “Well, Deputy, it looks like you’re in good hands.” He ambled to the door with a salute. “Good luck out here.”

The door closed, shutting Theodore into the dim confines of his new life. He sighed, unsure of what he expected.

The little bird huffed and grunted, scrambling with all her might to pick up the massive bookcase. Theodore watched, pitying them both.

“Please stop,” Theodore said. “It’s cute of you to try, but it’s pointless. You’re just a tiny bird. You aren’t cut out for that.”

She burst out laughing, startling Theodore. “That’s right! I’m a bird!” She said. “I was locked up so long I forgot!”

Theodore raised an eyebrow. “I’m not sure how you forget something like that.”

The little bird erupted. In a blink, its body grew and shifted, snapping to the size and shape of a person. Now, instead of a little songbird, a goat-legged woman was standing in front of him.

“That’s better,” she said, wringing her hands. “Let’s get to work!”

“You’re…” Theodore backed away. “What are you?” Fritz was right. He had no idea what this creature was or of what it was capable.

Her entire body was covered in coarse brown fur with speckles and a white underbelly. She was something between a deer and a goat and a human. Her black heart-shaped nose was joined in a short snout, her head wrapped in a messy mane of hair. Stubby little horns poked off the top of her head. Instead of feet her legs ended on a pair of hooves, ankles bent hock, muscles toned. Her smile was playful and her eyes big and brown.

“My name’s Oboe! I’m a faun!” she said, lifting the fallen bookcase with a single arm.

Theodore searched his memory. He had taken pride in studying magic creatures as little as possible once his father tried to force him. “That’s a type of fairy, isn’t it?”

She nodded, sitting the bookcase right side up. “Yeah. And you’re human, right? That makes you a type of feral.”

“What?” He scrunched his nose. “Don’t be ridiculous. I’m not a talking animal.”

Oboe looked confused. “Oh. But humans are non-magic creatures, right? And they learned to talk because magic touched them, and taught them how to think thoughts, right?”

“Well… yes.” It was a crude but technically correct summary of leading biological theory.

“So how are humans different from ferals? What makes you different from the squirrels or badgers who think and talk?”

“We just are!” This entire discussion was absurd. “We’ve got cities and laws and a whole economy!”

Oboe rolled an upturned desk onto its legs. “Oh. I suppose so.” She fell quiet, and decided to assist Theodore in picking files and papers off the floor. “We don’t get a lot of humans out here. You don’t dress like a witch either. What brings you out to the Whirlwood?”

Theodore grimaced, wishing he could forget. “I was appointed as the new Ranger Deputy.”

The faun froze, eyes wide and mouth hanging open. Papers slipped through her hands and scattered across the floor.

Theodore waved at her, growing concerned. “Are you o-“

She lunged before he could finish. Theodore flailed his arms in self-defense, falling back against the desk. The fairy beast leaned over him, inches from his face.


Theodore slumped limp to the floor. Oboe paced in front of him, somehow bouncier than before. “Oh gosh, oh gosh! We haven’t had a Ranger Deputy in months! This is amazing! You can help everyone! Finally! You can kill Silas Jack!!”


Episode 1 Chapter 13

It took Theodore a moment to realize the faun was not about to tear out his throat. It took him several more to process what she was asking him to do.

“Kill…?” he said, pushing himself to his feet. “You want me to kill somebody?”

“Yeah!” Oboe said, and mimed swinging a sword. “That’s what knights do, right? Slay stuff?”

Theodore grit his teeth. “I am not a knight!”

Oboe blinked, brow furrowed. “Oh.” she said. “But the king sent you to help us, right?”

Theodore moved behind the desk, to put something between him and the creature. “He approved the transfer, yes. I was recommended by middle management. I don’t know how to fight, and would not fight even if I could.”

“Don’t all humans fight?” She looked bewildered.

Was she stupid? “No!” Of course they didn’t.

Disappointment crept into her confusion. Theodore circled the desk as she tried to follow him. “That’s weird. Why would the king send you? How are you going to slay wicked creatures if you can’t fight?”

A memory flashed: His father’s sword arcing through a slice. A nymph’s severed head screaming through the air. A werewolf crumbling to ash under the weight of a knife. Theodore pounded a fist into the desk.

“I’m not going to slay anything!” He startled them both with how loud he yelled.

The two stood in stunned silence. Theodore, prickling, did his best to calm down.

“I’m sorry,” he said, “…I need to ask you to leave.”

“Aren’t you going to help us?” There was desperation in her voice. “Isn’t it your job…?”

“It’s not my job to kill things!” He said.

“I thought that’s what the Ranger Deputy does?”

Theodore felt the world close in around him. She was right, wasn’t she? He marched into this office wearing a military uniform, as if the job description wasn’t drenched in blood.

An epiphany struck. Slipping past Oboe, Theodore seized his suitcase and dropped it onto the desk. It sprang open, and he pulled out his orientation binder as if it were a magic weapon.

“Here!” he said. He opened it to its first laminated page and pointed. “That’s my job description!”

Oboe leaned over the page, reading.

“Henceforth, in the year of the Mother 3586, the station of Ranger Deputy is established by decree of the King of all Laien. The appointed shall stand for law and order within the Whirlwood Valley. There he shall keep peace between Man, Ghast, Fey, and Feral. He will oversee the collection and transfer of wild magic for the prosperity of the people. He will speak for the crown among the trees, and give aid to those in dire need.”

“Er, yes.” Theodore was surprised the faun could read. “As you see, there is no specific mention of killing, fighting, slaying, or similar loathsome verbs.”

She looked up. “So you’re going to keep peace and help out, but not slay anyone?”

“Uh.” Theodore’s head spun trying to imagine the logistics behind what he was arguing. It did not matter. All he truly needed was to lay low until he could find some loophole to get out of his assignment. “That… appears to be the case.”

Oboe stood, taking in and weighing Theodore’s words. She tensed.

“That’s amazing!!” She climbed over the desk and lifted Theodore into a crushing bear hug. “You’re going to save us and not hurt anyone! That’s the coolest thing I’ve ever heard!”

Panic flooded Theodore’s veins. He thrashed to get free, shoving his hand in her face. “Stop! Let me go at once!”

She did so, placing him back down on the floor with care. His skin crawled, wondering if the creature had managed to enchant him.

“Leave.” he said, glaring.

“But…” She glanced around at the mess around them. “Don’t you want me to help you clean up?”

“I said get out!” He stomped toward her and she retreated.

“Um. Okay!” She lingered in the doorway. “Well. I just want you to know I’m excited about your plan to help us! Thank you so much!”

“Fantastic.” Theodore pushed the door into her, throwing himself against it to close it shut. “Goodbye!”

The door clicked shut, and he heaved a sigh of relief.

“Welcome to the Whirlwood Valley!” Oboe called from outside. “I hope you’re happy here!” Theodore locked the door. “I’ll be happy when I’m gone.”


Episode 1 Chapter 14

All Theodore needed was to research a way out of his job. There had to be something: a loophole, a legal technicality, anything that would give him the foothold to argue himself free of the royal appointment. There was no telling how long this would take, and that meant he needed to get the cottage into a half-way livable condition.

After clearing out the debris, mopping and sweeping, patching the roof, regrouting the kitchen tile, unpacking and organizing his books and wardrobe, sanitizing the kitchenware, re-alphabetizing the file system, and fixing all wobbling furniture legs, he supposed it would suffice. It bothered him that the plumbing still required maintenance, the vegetable garden needed weeding, and the wallpaper could stand to match the curtains. Sacrifices had to made.

Theodore sprang out of bed at first light to begin his quest. He brewed himself 340 milliliters of coffee and prepared a dish of 540 milliliters of porridge. After ironing his uniform, he settled onto the desk with a stack of law and government guideline manuals. His answer was buried somewhere among those pages, he just needed to find it.

Halfway through his coffee, his concentration was broken by a knock at the door. Dread washed over him. Did anyone know he was here? He sat still, wondering if whoever it was would leave if he stayed quiet.

There was another round of knocking. Theodore got up and crept toward the door. He unlatched the lock and opened the door just enough to peek through the gap.

The yard was crowded with a menagerie of wild creatures of every shape and size. Gnomes, werewolves, foxes, deer, trolls, nymphs, and goblins all locked eyes with him. He slammed the door shut and latched it again. He realized, in a moment of horror, that the cottage was surrounded.

He jumped as the window shutters burst open, a sparkling unicorn stuck its head through the window and craned its neck towards him.

“Greetings human! We of the Whirlwood have come to beseech you!!”

Theodore pressed himself up against the wall, praying he was beyond the creature’s reach. He stifled a shriek as a half dozen gnomes rolled off the unicorn’s neck to fall into a dog pile on the floor.

“Hey!” They sprung to their feet. Tiny hedgehog people, dressed in rags and mantles with sharp hair quills, grubby little hands, and long tails. “Why’d they take so long to hire you?!” Their voices were shrill and nasal. They clambered over one another to grab at Theodore’s pant legs. “It’s been months! You’re supposed to help us!”

Theodore shook the gnomes off and jumped over them. He stumbled when he saw foxes, badgers and field mice climbing into the office through the window. The office floor was flooding with wild animals. He fled into the kitchen.

“Where are you going?!” They gave chase.

There was a backdoor where he could make an escape. He threw the door open, and found a werewolf was standing on the other side. It was a massive beast with curls of coarse black hair, a slathering jaw of pointed teeth, a nice silk tie, and blood red eyes. Theodore backed away as it reached toward him with a long sinewy arm, fingers fanned with razor claws. It seized Theodore by the hand before he could react.

“Hello.” It shook his hand. “My name is Barghest. It’s very nice to meet you.”

Theodore pulled his hand free, screamed, and tripped over a dinette chair trying to run. His face pressed up against the linoleum, he wavered on the edge of consciousness, and decided it was an appropriate occasion to faint.


Episode 1 Chapter 15

Voices bickered on the edge of hearing.

“What’d you do to him?! Is he alright??”

“Don’t yell. I’m sorry! I thought I was being cordial!”

“You better not have broken ‘em. He only just got here and my permits still need renewing!”

Reality gripped Theodore with a nasty headache. His vision was a blur of color.

“He’s supposed to wear these!” a familiar voice said.

“Stay away from him, you nameless wretch! If you enchant him I’ll make sure the Circle hears of it!”

Theodore’s glasses were forced onto his face, and the world came into sharp focus. He found himself lying on the kitchen table. Squirming, he sat up, and saw the room crowded with fairies, monsters and animals. It was a profound disappointment to realize the past few days had not been an elaborate nightmare.

“He’s okay!” The beasts burst into cheers of delight and as much dancing as the floor space would allow. Theodore watched, reconsidering whether what he was seeing was the result of a concussion.

“Excuse me!” He held out a hand, bringing the celebration to a halt. “What is going on? Are you here to kill me?”

“Kill you?” The werewolf laughed, then furrowed his brow at the crowd. “Does he think we’re wicked or something?”

Theodore felt a sharp stab. He looked to find a gnome, dressed in layered shawls, jabbing him with a tiny cane.

“Don’t you insult us by saying we’re something we ain’t! I’ll have you know that no one in my whole family’s history has ever turned wicked! And that’s counting my late husband’s side. Honestly!”

One of the other gnomes spoke up. “Didn’t Uncle Lanny try to steal that baby once?”

“I didn’t ask you, Lyle! We don’t talk about Lanny! It doesn’t count!”

Whatever was going on, the creatures did not seem to mean any harm. Theodore didn’t feel enchanted, not that he had any idea what that felt like, and couldn’t even locate any bite marks. He slid off the table onto his feet, and the creatures made room.

“What’s going on?” Theodore asked. “Why are you all here?”

A faun shoved her way to the front. It was the one he met yesterday, Oboe. “I went to tell everybody about you! You’re welcome!”

Theodore stiffened. “Why would you do that?”

“Um.” Doubt dripped across her face. “Everybody’s been waiting for a new Ranger Deputy for months. I thought I’d help and let them know you arrived!”

“Yeah!” a goblin said. “I need to get my visa renewed so I can work in the city again!”

“Me too!” said the troll leaning in the doorway.

“Is getting a visitor’s pass easier?” a talking fox asked. “I’ve wanted to go inside the walls all my life.”

The werewolf raised his hand. “My haunting license is almost expired.”

“I have questions about starting a small business!!” a boar said, pushing others out of the way for attention.

“So…” Theodore started to understand. “You’re all needing help with paperwork and documentation?”

There was a collective murmur of agreement. “I guess so.” “Yeah.” “Pretty much.”

Today had not gone as expected. Theodore was annoyed that he’d been sidetracked from his research. However, the work was at least to his taste. There was no harm in him assisting with a few permit applications and renewals.

“You’ve caught me unprepared. Let me set up my desk and papers and we can get started. Who’s first?”

The entire room exploded into argument. Creatures on every side started shouting that they were first. They pulled at Theodore’s clothes, bellowed and started fighting and shoving. Theodore had to climb back onto the table to avoid getting pulled into the skirmish.

“Stop!” he said, but his voice was lost in the noise. “KNOCK IT OFF!”

The room froze mid-brawl. Theodore was shocked by how readily they responded to his command. He cleared his throat and straightened his uniform.

“There is no need for violence,” he said. “If we’re going to do this, we’re going to have to get organized.”