Episode 1 Chapter 1

Little Theodore dragged his heavy training sword along the mossy ground, stopping at the dark mouth of the cave. He was seven and hoped to see eight.

“I don’t want to. I’m scared.”

His father towered over him in his armored uniform, arms folded, grinning. “Scared?” He was massive and loud. His skin and hair were dark, his nose pointed, and his eyes fierce. “You’re the son of Lance Grayweather. You aren’t allowed to be scared.”

Theo hesitated, the rocky ground pressing into his shoes. His father slapped him across the back, knocking him off balance.

“Go on,” Lance urged. “If you’re to be a knight, you have to face danger head on!”

Theo was not sure he wanted to be a knight. He was born small, and at his mother’s expense. He was nearsighted and prone to startle. His hobbies included alphabetizing his toys, completing school work, composing numbered lists, memorizing facts from books, and shuffling stacks of paper so the edges lined up. Knights were large, liked to get into wars and shout a lot. Theo thought this meant he would make a very bad knight, but his father always got mad when he said this.

The shadows shifted. Something large moved just out of sight, and Theo felt his knees buckle. He wished with all his heart that he was back at home with his books, that his father would stop dragging him out into the miserable and muddy outdoors for hunting trips, wilderness survival lessons, and combat training.

Theo looked back at his father, who pointed at the cave. His smile was waning. Theo reminded himself that he was a good boy, and swallowed his fear. He pushed up his spectacles and dragged his sword across the threshold of the cave.

A moment later, Theo rushed back out of the cave screaming as a massive creature tore after him. It was covered in scales, and lumbered with a gorilla’s gait. Within a few meters it caught up, seized Theo by the ankles, and swallowed him whole.

Lance dashed up behind the creature and bashed it upside the head with the pommel of his sword. The beast toppled like a sack of potatoes. It took Lance a moment to roll the creature over and pry its jaws open. He reached in and pulled out his son, who at no point stopped screaming.

“What am I supposed to do with you?” He sat Theo down and shoved his sword back in his hands. “It was just a guard troll. You didn’t even try to fight it!”

Theo was slick with spittle and not yet over the trauma of getting stuck in a troll esophagus. His father pushed him back through the cave entrance.

“Stop it. A knight doesn’t snivel. You’re better than that.”

“I don’t want to be a knight!” Theo snapped back, wiping snot, saliva and tears from his face. “I want to go home!”

Lance hushed his son. “We aren’t done here. There are wicked fairies about. We leave when they’re captured.”

Theo threw down his sword. It clattered against the cave floor. “No! I don’t want to! I hate this!”

His father stood in the mouth of the cave, blocking him. Theo backed away. Without thinking, he ran off deeper into the cave.


Episode 1 Chapter 2

Theo stumbled through the pitch dark and winding tunnels of the old mine, tears in his eyes. He could hear the rattle of his father’s armor as he stormed after him. Lantern light peeked from around a corner and Theo hurried, scraping his hands against the rough-cut walls as he tried to get away.

Gravel gave way underneath Theo and he lost his footing. With a yelp he spilled down a stony shaft, collecting bruises as he slid. He was spat out into a wide chamber and bounced off something big and hairy.

“Huh?” A hairy, burly wolf man with bad posture turned around to look at what hit him. Theo strained to stand up, groaning. Stacks of crates and barrels surrounded him. The room was lit by veins of luminescent ore running through the cavern walls. Theo knew from his textbooks that it was fossilized magic. He was mesmerized long enough to forget about the werewolf staring down at him.

“What’re you supposed to be?” It snarled. Theo tried to back away as it snorted a noseful of him. “Some kind of giant gnome?”

“Hah!” a woman laughed. Theo looked. No, not a woman. Her eyes had no pupils. Her skin was a mottle of greens and blue. It was a nymph, draped in a shawl of black feathers. “Imbecile. That’s a human child. You’d know that if you left the Hollows once in a while.”

“What’s a human doing here?” The wolf man scratched his snout. “Edmund is supposed to be guarding the entrance.”

“He’s probably asleep again.” The nymph cradled her temple and sighed. “You get what you pay for.”

“Um.” Theo backed up against the wall. “A-are you the criminals? Are you going to hurt me?”

The creatures exchanged a glance. “It knows something,” the werewolf said. “The Fair Lady won’t like this.”

“Bring him here.” The nymph’s face twisted into a hungry smile. “I’ll take his voice. Turn him into a tasty toad.”

“Like hell!” The wolf shouted. “I found it first!” He lifted Theo by the collar and leaned into his face.

“Listen pup.” His breath was wet and foul. “We’re gonna play a game. I count to three. You run, and I chase you. If I catch you, I win, and I get to rip you apart.”

Normally, Theo loved games. They had lots of rules and everybody waited their turn. This did not sound like one of those. “H-h-how do I win?”

The creature snapped its jaws. “One.” He threw Theo to the cave floor. Theo hurried to his feet. “Two…” He looked for somewhere to run in the room of boxes. “Three!”

Lunging from nowhere, Lance tackled the werewolf to the ground. The beast roared and fought back with a flurry of clawed slashes. Sir Grayweather wrestled it down with one arm and used his off hand to plunge a shining silver dagger into the creature’s chest. The wolf man let out an agonized shriek as he shriveled, collapsing in on himself.

“Fenrus!” The nymph watched in horror as she watched the body turn to ash. “Damn you humans! I’ll kill you both!” She reared back, her legs twisting into tree roots. Her shawl exploded into a spray of feathers and she towered over them, now half tree. She thrust an arm, now a spearing stake, only for Lance to leap onto the limb. With one swing of his iron longsword, he cleaved the nymph’s head from her shoulders. Her body writhed in agony, before freezing in place as lifeless wood.

Lance ran to his son. “Theo! Are you hurt? Look at me!”

Theo stared at the severed head of the fairy nymph as the amber blood pooled. Lance shook him and Theo turned to look up at his father. His face was bloody with scratches, his armor was battered, and death surrounded him. This was what a knight looked like. The sort of knight Theo was expected to become.

He burst into wailing tears.


Episode 1 Chapter 3

Theodore Grayweather’s hand trembled. He sat hunched over his desk with an ink quill hovering over the enrollment form. His heart pounded with excitement. Double checking the bank statement that he brought home that day, he verified for the tenth time that the numbers were correct. After working for years and saving every last coin he could, he had at last scrimped together enough money to attend the University.

Taking a deep breath, he got to work. Theodore went line by line and column by column, filling the application with writing so tight and precise it appeared to have been made by typewriter. When he was done he still had so much energy left over that he could not help but fill out the second application he picked up in case he made a mistake. He triple checked to make sure everything was in compliance with enrollment policy and then sealed the paperwork into a stamped envelope. After six years of patience, it felt as if the world would end if he failed to find a post office that very minute.

Theodore rushed across his garret apartment to get ready for work. Apart from the battered second-hand furniture, it would be barren if not for the tidy stacks of library books. Most of the volumes were study material for the entrance exam, but it was impossible for Theodore not to come home without five more textbooks than he intended when the world was so full of things to learn. He pulled one of his work suits from the wardrobe hanger and pinned back his long ash-brown hair in the mirror.

No one would guess at a glance that Theodore was a Grayweather, which pleased him. His father, when he was alive, was a mountain of a man with amber skin and slick black hair. At age twenty-two, Theodore was rail thin by comparison. Puberty made him tall but paid him no other favor. He remained slight, scrawny, angular, and pale, with eyeglasses masking bright green eyes. The only thing that betrayed his heritage was his damned nose, which was long and pointed and led people to ask if by some chance he were related to the Hero Champion.

None of that mattered now. Lance was dead, and the only thing standing in Theodore’s way from a life of study at the greatest university on the continent was the delivery of an envelope. Careful to navigate around his landlord’s eight cats while fixing his tie, he stepped out into the streets of Laien and hurried to the nearest post office.

“Inside city limits?” said the Post Master, who was a talking pigeon wearing a tiny hat. The whole building was an aviary, and smelled like a chicken coop. He watched the envelope balance on the scale. “Express delivery will cost eight thalers.”

Theodore had exact change in hand before he stepped through the door. A courier bird launched from a wall-mounted rail perch, snatched up the letter and zipped out the window. Theodore lingered to watch the letter disappear, wishing he could deliver it by hand but knowing there was no more time before work.

The 7:25AM trolley glided across the brickwork roadways of the capital city, propelled by magic. Theodore sat through his commute, watching the familiar slanted roofs, street lamps and monuments pass, when he was seized by a panic. Had he been too hasty? Did he really have enough money put aside after only six years? Something could go wrong. He might be injured. His apartment could catch fire. Monsters from the valley could break in and put a magic curse on him. The train of thought disturbed him so much he almost missed his stop. He resolved to review his budget the moment he got home to be sure he accounted for every possibility.

Theodore stepped off the trolley and made his way across the government plaza to climb the imposing steps of the Laien kingdom’s central downtown Bureaucracy Dome. There, on the tenth floor, he clocked in and entered a labyrinth of filing cabinets.

“Thank the Mother you’re here!” Randall Silverpin looked more disheveled than usual, with his shirt tail loose and his hair unkempt. “I don’t know what to do! There’s someone asking to look at the documents!”

Theodore blinked at him, and then glanced around at the filing cabinets surrounding them. “Well, yes. That’s what the records department is here for.”

“I know that!” Randall said in a hiss, looking over his shoulder. “I just don’t know where anything is! This woman just waltzed in and started asking for help! I have to keep telling her it will be just a few more minutes!” His shoulders slumped. “I wish she would go away.”

“What is she looking for?”

Relief washed over his co-worker’s face. “Floor plans for the king’s castle.”

“Does she have clearance to look at that?” Theodore said.

“She’s the Governor’s secretary! Of course she does!”

Theodore made a beeline straight to the cabinet they needed. He fingered through the files, searching for the exact department code. “I can’t keep doing this for you. I’m leaving to start university soon. You need to memorize the filing system without me.”

“Not if they reject your application,” Randall said, hopeful. “Right?”

Snatching the blueprints, Theodore slammed the filing cabinet shut and swept toward the front desk. There, he found a prim but unremarkable woman waiting for them.

“Sorry to keep you waiting,” Theodore said.

“It’s fine.” She feigned a smile as she took the file from him. Her eyes focused on his nose, and Theodore dreaded the question that followed. “Pardon me, do you happen to be Mr. Grayweather?”

“Yeah he is,” Randall said. “But he doesn’t like talking about it.”

Theodore shot his subordinate an icy look. “My name is Theodore Grayweather. What of it?”

 “I have something for you, from the Governor,” she said.

“If you need something filed, it needs to go through acquisitions and claims first.”

“Nothing like that.” She offered him a piece of paper. “Here.”

Feeling uneasy, Theodore took the parchment from her and unfolded it. His hand trembled as he read. In one moment all his plans for the future fell apart.


Episode 1 Chapter 4

“You can’t do this to me!” Theodore said, grabbing at air, needing to strangle something. “I’ve done nothing wrong!” He wanted to knock over a stack of papers for dramatic effect, but could not muster the gall to go through with it.

Gregory Farbend sat at his desk with his hands folded. He was a large and mild man, with dark red skin and a face composed mostly of jowls interrupted by a mustache. As Governor, his job was to manage city affairs on behalf of the king. It was clear by his puzzled expression that he had not expected anyone to barge into his office today and shout about being wrongfully promoted.

“I’m not sure I understand the problem,” he said. “This position comes with a doubling of your salary and a field office to live in and operate out of. You should be pleased.”

“The problem is I’m a clerk!” Theodore crumpled the transfer notice and tossed it onto the desk. “I organize paperwork for a living! And you are reassigning me to law enforcement? Are you out of your mind?!”

Mr. Farbend chuckled. “I wouldn’t assign just anyone to this. Can you imagine my surprise when I heard there was a Grayweather working here at the Dome this whole time? I couldn’t have asked for a better candidate.”

Theodore paced, rubbing his forehead, wondering who talked. He had been so careful for so long. Randall was the most likely suspect, but he swore to Theodore he wouldn’t gossip. “My family name doesn’t matter! I’m not qualified for this!”

“Nonsense,” Governor Farbend said. “I was well acquainted with your father. He trained some of the finest knights of this generation, and I know for a fact he was grooming his son to be the best of them.”

Memories flashed through Theodore’s mind, one after another: torn away from his books, dragged by the arm to fencing lessons. Endless lectures on form and technique. Falling from horseback into filth. Arms sore from archery drills from noon to dusk. Bruises, scrapes, sweat and blood. A severed head screaming through the air. His breathing grew shallow.

“I am not a knight,” he said. “I don’t care what my father told you.”

Mr. Farbend scoffed. “The Grayweathers have always been knights.”

“And that’s why they’re all dead!” Theodore said. It would take only a passing glance into the family history to see the grisly truth. Whether they were torn apart by creatures, chopped to pieces by bandits, or killed in honorable duels, every last one of them met an early end. “I’m the only one left!”

“You’re getting too worked up over this,” Mr. Farbend said. “At least look at the benefits package we’re offering!”

Theodore remembered standing at his father’s funeral: a closed casket hinting at the gruesome fate Lance met but no one would describe. The reality of what happened was buried under flowers and incense and fancy speeches. Lance was the Hero Champion of the Kingdom of Laien. He was the greatest knight in living memory, and his maimed corpse was found dumped on the side of the road.

“I gave up everything to get away from that life.” Theodore turned to leave. “Find someone else to do your thug work.”

Mr. Farbend stood up. He pulled open a drawer and slid a document across the desk.

“I trust you know what this is,” he said.

Theodore let go of the doorknob as he looked back. His eyes went wide. He did know. “That’s a royal appointment form.” He picked up the document, adjusting his glasses to be certain. “This is signed by the king.” He looked up, his knees ready to give out. ” …You’re conscripting me.”

He let out a snort. “Well, I couldn’t risk some knight order snatching you up! I’ve needed to fill this position for months!”

Theodore collapsed into a chair. A royal appointment wasn’t something he could ignore. Refusing to comply with a decree of this nature was grounds for exile. The Governor snatched the paper away from Theodore’s limp grip.

“This really has been no end of trouble for me.” Mr. Farbend put the form away and straightened his vest. “I can’t just assign some no-name, but it’s not like anyone wants the job.” He sighed. “Whether you like it or not, the matter is settled. You start next week. Maybe now the fairies and ghasts will stop breathing down my neck about this…”

Theodore sat straight at the mention of creatures. “Wait,” he said. “Fairies? Ghasts? Just where are sending me?!”

Governor Farbend froze. It appeared there was one last nasty surprise he had hoped to put off as long as possible.

“…You’ve been assigned to the Whirlwood Valley,” he said. “As the Ranger Deputy, you’re to keep the peace among the magical creatures there and oversee the harvest of wild magic.”

Theodore gripped the edges of his seat, feeling his whole world careening into the abyss. Things were far worse than he could’ve imagined.


Episode 1 Chapter 5

Theodore bent over the sink to splash himself with cold water. He stared into his reflection in the mirror, mortified by the uniform he was wearing. A heavy khaki shirt and olive breeches, tailored to endure the rugged outdoors. The Ranger Deputy badge, an eight-pointed star cast in silver and iron, was pinned to his chest. It all made his skin itch. These were the clothes of a brute, paid to patrol the Whirlwood Valley and keep monsters in their place. He added a tie to hold onto some trace of humanity, but it wasn’t enough. He looked at his pointed nose, his face, and saw a shade of his father looking back.

How many times had his father dragged him deep into the Whirlwood to train? It was a place so rich with wild magic it attracted every manner of fairy, witch, and ghast. Even if the kingdom made peace with those creatures a long time ago, there was a reason stone walls stood between them and the city. He still remembered the nymph and werewolf that tried to kill him. Theodore wanted no part of that world, but there was no choice. Refusing a royal appointment was treason, it meant banishment from his home.

Theodore tried to imagine himself fleeing to live anywhere else. Grappling to learn the clicky language of Feymire, with its forty-seven vowels and two consonants. The people of Red Spire had yet to discover plumbing, let alone library science. It would not be safe to cross the border into the Sun Meadows on account of his skin tone. The Cloudwell had just started another of its protracted land wars with the empire of Korveil. Every alternative was impossible.

Marching out of the bathroom, Theodore wrestled with a stuck window long enough to crack it open. The capital’s skyline stretched ahead of him, with old cobblestone homes and towers standing alongside the sleek and bulbous steel factories. Laien was a masterpiece, the pride and power of the continent, a grid of streets and numbered buildings parceled into elegant postal codes, and at its heart sat the prize: The sprawling campus of the University. It was right there and yet farther than it had ever been before.

Theodore stomped up the stairs to his apartment, startling his land-lord’s cats along the way. The room was barren now that the library books were returned. He hurled what precious little he owned into a pair of suitcases, his mind racing. There was a way out of this. There had to be. Laien’s legal system was complex, with loopholes and exceptions for everything. When the packing was nearly done, he found room for two heavy tomes on law. If there was a way out of this assignment, if there was some way he could still go to the University, he would find it. He would just have to bide his time for now.

After paying the last of his rent, he uprooted himself and boarded a trolley bound to the Western Gate station. He stepped off on the edge of the city, where the walls towered overhead: centuries old stone erected and warded to repel invaders and every manner of creature. Outside the sanctuary of the capital, civilization faltered. Nervous, he made his way.

“Oi!” a watchman flagged him down. His eyes were dull, like his mind was elsewhere. He had short curly blond locks and wore a tabard over chainmail, checkered green and white. “You the new Ranger Deputy?”

Theodore made eye contact and paused. He withdrew his pocket watch and waited ten additional seconds for the time to tick over to precisely 7:30 a.m., his scheduled arrival time.

“Yes, hello. That is correct.” He snapped the timepiece shut. “I was instructed to meet with the leading officer at the Gate. Is that you?”

“Nah. I’m just Fritz.” The badge on his chest marked him as Lieutenant. He excavated something from his nose and flicked it away. “The captain will be down in the train yard prepping for the harvest. This way, please.”

Fritz led Theodore to the gate, wide enough to allow a whole trade caravan through but barred by portcullis. The Lieutenant picked a small rock off the ground and chucked it at one of tower windows. A man in a plumed helmet leaned out.

“What?!” he called down, annoyed.

“New dep’s here! Open her up, Gary!”

The tower guard disappeared back into the interior. After a few moments, the wall rumbled as the portcullis clattered open. Theodore followed and passed through. Beyond the gate, the roads rolled down into the distant valley where vast tracks of trees spilled out into the horizon all curled together like a briar patch. The capital city overlooked the Whirlwood from the upper rim. From here, Theodore could see a maze of trails running through the forest sprawl like veins. Teetering stone spires and old ruins peeked through the canopy of trees. Islands of rock, soaked in wild magic, floated on the horizon while unseasonal snow fell in pockets. It was a place he had not seen since he was a child and had hoped to never see again.

Fritz glanced back at Theodore. “You’re braver than you look.”

Theodore felt a new unease. “What do you mean?”

“I hear the pay is good, but the last guy that had your job up and vanished.” Fritz shrugged. “Probably got himself eaten. Or cursed. The usual. Anyway, follow me.”


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.