Theodore froze, staring at the gaping mouth of the mine. It sat up at the end of the trail, nestled among the foothills, waiting for him. The sight sent his heart pounding and reminded him of a long time ago when he was small and trapped.
“I’ve been here before,” he said.
“You have?” Oboe looked surprised. “Do you do a lot of smuggling?”
Theodore raised an eyebrow. “What’re you talking about?”
“All sorts of sneaky, crimey creatures LOVE Crookhole Mine.” She wiggled her fingers, presumably to mime being a criminal. “There’s all this fossilized magic in the ground, and it makes it hard to find anybody. It’s hard to smell anything, and human gizmos get all confused.”
“I see.” No doubt the mine was abandoned once the University discovered how to purify wild magic from the Fount. “And now it’s being used by the Red Caps.”
Flags flew over the entrance. Scraps and torn rags ripped from knight uniforms were sewn together and dyed red. Theodore crossed the threshold and into the dark, wondering why life had conspired to bring him here again.
The memory of falling urged Theodore to creep forward with careful footing, with Oboe following right behind. They stepped over snarled minecart tracks, and the shadows grew deeper as they strayed farther from daylight. The quiet heightened every sound; the crunch of their own footsteps put Theodore on edge. He wanted an excuse to turn back, to say they had delved deep enough and nothing could be done, but a job left half done did not sit right with him.
The path forked. Cart rails dipped into the dark one way, and along the other there were bright lanterns strung along the tunnels walls. The lamps were new, burning magic with a faint hum. If anyone was to be found down here, it would be this way.
The lights led them into a wide chamber. Upturned minecarts were stripped of their wheels and repurposed into tables. Bedding of various sizes was padded over the hard ground. A single gnome was slumped across a pillow, drooling.
“Is this him?” Theodore said, whispering.
Oboe sniffed. “Hard to tell. I think so, but I can’t get his scent. Gnomes all look the same to me. Just cute little blobs.”
“He might be one of the Red Caps,” Theodore said. “What do we do?”
“Let’s try asking him,” Oboe said, and started shaking the gnome. “Hey! Wake up!”
Theodore choked back a scream as the gnome plopped off his pillow onto the cave floor. It yawned, rolled onto its butt, and blinked at them.
“Are you Lemmy?” Oboe said.
“Yeah.” He rubbed the sleep from his eyes. His quills were cream colored, and one of his fangs was chipped. He wore a little mantle embroidered with a molehill.
Theodore was astounded by their luck. “Your mother sent us! We’re here to save you.”
“Save me?” Lemmy said. “I don’t need any saving.”
“What are you talking about?” Oboe lifted him by the scruff. “You got kidnapped by the Red Caps, so we’re here to rescue you!”
The gnome wriggled free and dropped to the floor. “Nobody kidnapped me! I joined ’cause I wanted! Silas told me we’re gonna get rid of the humans! It’s gonna be awesome.” It was at this point the gnome was awake enough to really look at Theodore. “Oh hey. I remember you. You’re that string bean human who got in the way when we were attacking the train!”
Theodore pinched at his brewing headache. It seemed Mahala neglected to mention some key details. “Lemmy. I’m not just any human. I’m the Ranger Deputy, and you’re in a heap of trouble. You joined a group of wanted outlaws!”
“So?” Lemmy crossed his arms. “Silas said that won’t matter once the humans are gone. It’s going to be way better without you around.”
Theodore scoffed. “What’s wrong with humans?”
“You think you’re so much better than us creatures ’cause you’ve got your city and your jobs and your money. Lots of us here in the Whirl need jobs. We want it nice like you’ve got it or how the Circle’s got it. You don’t care. You don’t want to help us. All you do is make it harder all the time! Well, after we kick all you out we’ll take all the jobs and money and then you’ll be sorry!”
Theodore felt a strange discomfort. He thought about all the creatures who’d come through the office needing work visas, license renewals, and other essential documents needed to enter the capital. “I see,” he said. This was a problem, but it did not excuse violence. It did not make attacking the train the right thing to do.
“So, what happens if this plan doesn’t work?” Theodore said. “What if you get arrested instead?”
Lemmy stared at him. This outcome had apparently never crossed his mind.
“I’ll tell you what will happen,” Theodore said. “You’ll get hauled before the court with a charge of treason. You’ll be labeled wicked, and be jailed or executed. Then your mother is going to stop talking about you, like she does with your uncle.”
There was a long pause. Uncertainty crept into the gnome’s face. “Is mom mad?” Panic set in. “…I don’t want her to be mad at me. Do you have any idea what she’s like?”
Something huge dropped from the ceiling and shook the ground. Theodore turned around to find a massive spider-like creature looming over them, covered in dangling locks of ragged hair. Its mouth opened, two thirds of its body and lined with giant molars. It smiled.
“What’ve we got here?”