Theodore tumbled into darkness with Oboe in his arms and Lemmy clinging to his face. They bounced down the clefts of the shaft, collecting bruises, until they landed like a heap of laundry at the bottom.
Sore, but alive, Theodore pulled Lemmy off his face. He looked around to see the cavern lit up in streaks of azure and violet. Veins of old magic ore veined through the walls, glowing bright.
Theodore was relieved to find that the frames of his spectacles were bent but not broken. He looked up the shaft, hoping there was no way for Glut to follow them.
“How’d you know this was down here?” Lemmy said. His voice echoed off the walls.
Theodore pressed a fresh crink out of his spine. “It’s a hard fall to forget.” He checked to make sure Oboe was breathing. “Are you okay?”
Her eyes popped open. “Yeah!” She rolled over and sprang onto her hooves. Up and alert, she marveled at the fossilized magic around them. “It’s pretty down here!”
“Nevermind that,” Theodore said. “You owe me an explanation. You didn’t tell me you were one of the Red Caps!”
“Oh.” Her ears drooped. “Is it okay if I tell you now? I was a member of the Red Caps.”
Theodore could not believe this. “So you were a criminal the whole time.”
“No!” She said. “I’m not wicked! I only joined for a little bit.”
“And that makes it okay? Why would you join a band of outlaws?!”
Looking down, she shuffled her hooves. “I didn’t know they were bad. It was all these different creatures, acting like a family. They said they wanted to make the Whirlwood a better place, and didn’t care who I was. It was nice. I thought I could make some friends.” She wiped her snout and looked up. “Then they asked me to use my magic to hurt humans and got mad when I said I wouldn’t. They wouldn’t let me leave after that.”
Theodore grabbed a handful of his own hair in frustration. “What you’re telling me is you joined without realizing what you were joining. …Are you an idiot?”
Lemmy punched Theodore in the shin. “Hey!” He said. “Lay off!”
Theodore looked down at the gnome.
“The faun didn’t do anything wrong,” Lemmy said. “Lots of creatures join the Red Caps wanting to fix things. It’s not her fault they turned nasty. I saw what happened. She stood up to Silas and Glut and five whole trolls even though she didn’t stand a chance. I say that makes her real brave!”
“What does that make you?” Theodore said, pointing. “The Red Caps attack your village and you join them? What’s wrong with you?”
“I’m just a gnome,” he said. “If a faun couldn’t win, I wasn’t about to try.” He shrugged. “Joining meant he’d leave mom alone, and maybe I could be part of something big. Silas needs numbers if he’s going to turn things around.”
Theodore scoffed. “And your solution is fighting humans?
Lemmy bared his teeth. “The only thing you humans care about is harvesting magic! You forgot about us. Maybe fighting is the only thing that’ll make you pay attention!”
“It doesn’t have to be like that anymore,” Oboe put herself between them. “If Theo is the new Ranger Deputy, that means he can talk to the humans and we can work things out. …Right?”
Theodore had no argument. It was clear from the number of creatures swarming the office for help that things had gotten out of hand. “…There hasn’t been a Ranger Deputy in months. Maybe if there had been, this wouldn’t have happened.”
The little hedgehog man looked him dead in the eye. “Did you mean what you said earlier? Are you really going to help us?”
Theodore hesitated. There was no way he was the right person for this task, but it wasn’t something he could turn his back on either.
“I’m going to do what I can,” he said. “The governor needs to know about this. Maybe the King. Something needs to happen.”
Lemmy’s face softened. Looking down, he nodded. “Okay,” he said. “I don’t want to be wicked. This just felt like the only thing I could do. If there’s another way, if I can count on you, I think I made the right call.”
Like that, the argument was over. Theodore felt uneasy, like he was saddled with more than he bargained for, but at least now they could move on.
“What do we do now?” Oboe said.
“Well, first thing we need to do is find a way out of here,” Theodore said.
Oboe glanced around the chamber. There were five different tunnels heading in every direction. “Which way is out?”
Theodore had no idea, but both creatures stared at him and waited. It appeared the Ranger Deputy was expected to lead them out of trouble. He sighed. There was nothing to do but start looking.