“A man is dead!” The Alderman slammed his fists into Theodore’s desk, rattling the quills and documents. He did it again for emphasis. “Dead!”
Theodore straightened and leveled his papers and writing utensils. After three weeks serving as Ranger Deputy of the Whirlwood Valley he had grown accustomed to strange creatures barging into his office with odd demands. That morning he helped a flock of mockingbirds apply for citizenship, settled an argument over cave ownership, and spoke to the owner of a bakery about a troll who wanted his job back.
This was different. This was a homicide report.
Alaric Pearce was a huge man, callused and muscled from a lifetime of manual labor. A ragged beard and brush of long brown hair made him look wild. His face was taut like a mousetrap ready to snap. He was the appointed Alderman of the Southern farming manor, and he was a bit worked up about his duties.
“I will have blood for blood!” he said, pouring Theodore’s pencil cup out for effect. Everything bounced and scattered. Theodore strained to maintain his poker face.
“I need you to stay calm,” Theodore said, seizing the cup from him and replacing the pencils. “I’m sorry to hear you’ve lost a worker, but I can only help if you explain what happened. Please, sit.”
Pearce plopped into the seat. The wood groaned in protest.
“He’s not just some laborer!” Pearce said. “His name was Anthony Willow. He was a good man. A friend, even! They found him floating face down in the river Wander. Now we’re left with an empty seat in the dining hall, not to mention his widows.”
Theodore took notes, rubbing his jaw with his free hand. “I see. Is there a reason you’re reporting this to me instead of the city watch?”
The Alderman pressed his finger hard into the desk. “You’re in charge of the valley, right? Had to have been one of your ghasts that did it.”
Theodore stopped writing as his blood ran cold. “A ghast?” The scar on his chest ached. The stitches were gone but the memory remained. He remembered Silas lunging in the dark, clawing and kicking and screaming in fury. It was the closest Theodore had ever come to death, and it was only thanks to the bravery of Oboe and the knights of the city watch that he lived. Was there another like him on the loose?
Perhaps there was a mistake. “Is there… any evidence it was a ghast?”
“Evidence??” He pounded the desk again. “It’s the only explanation! You’d have to be a monster to attack a man like Anthony! Ghasts feed on fear! They waged war on us! They’re dangerous!”
This was historically true. Ghasts, as a class of magical creature, fed on negative human emotion. The Kingdom of Laien was founded following a war against them centuries ago. However, things were different now. Humans and ghasts lived in peace, and it was Theodore’s job to make sure that peace continued.
“Ghasts are citizens of Laien, same as anyone else,” he said to remind them both. “The treaties ensure this. It isn’t normal for them to turn wicked.”
“Bullshit!” Pearce said, tightening his sneer. “The Red Caps attack humans all the time!”
Theodore shook his head. “Not anymore. The Red Caps are gone.”
“Are they?” Pearce hunched over the desk. “How I hear it, you let them all run free. It’s only natural one would start killing again!”
It was the sort of thought that kept Theodore up at night. “There are other possibilities,” he said. The Alderman still hadn’t provided any proof a ghast was the culprit. “I’ll look into it.”
“Huh!” Pearce said. “‘Look into it!?’ A man is dead! You’re just blowing me off!”
“No.” Theodore started composing a letter. “I’ll send a request for a mortician to come and examine the body. I’ll investigate the crime scene and speak to your villagers. If enough evidence exists to isolate a perpetrator, there will be a trial.”
Pearce slammed his palm again, warping the wood. “A trial!? Monsters don’t deserve trials! Listen, if you can’t get us justice, I’ll just round up my men and go the creature ourselves!”
Theodore cringed at the thought of a mob tearing through the valley accusing whoever appeared suspicious. That kind of anarchy was beneath his countrymen, even if they were after a killer. He set down his quill and met the Alderman in the eye.
“If you are loyal to King Stonewall, I would advise against it. If there’s justice to be found, it will be found by the King’s Law or not at all.”
Pearce snorted. “Fine. Do your little investigation. But mark my words: If you can’t get justice for Anthony, we’ll make it ourselves. You hear me?” He stood up and stomped out of the cottage, without bothering to shut the door.
Theodore sat in silence. It felt like a hurricane had swept through his office. He took a deep breath and looked over his notes. He underlined the word ‘ghast’ and wondered what sort of storm lied ahead.