The trails of the Whirlwood confused and misled. Theodore found himself looping back to the same groves over and over, and when he found dead-ends he would double back to find someplace new. It was as if the forest itself conspired to keep him. It was no matter. Theodore fixed his eyes on capital city, which sat high over the valley on its farthest rim. Whenever he lost his way, he peered up through the trees and marched toward the city like a beacon.
He emerged from the woodland, shabby and worn. The city walls loomed high. The watchmen raised the portcullis, and Lieutenant Fritz sauntered out with a sword in hand.
“You got papers to enter?” He said. “If not, piss off.”
“I’m sorry?” Theodore was startled by the watchman’s tone. “Lieutenant, we’ve met before.”
“I’m not falling for that,” Fritz said. “What you look like doesn’t count for much. You might be a shapeshifter. Maybe a bogeyman, or a doppelganger.” He waved, and a pair of archers on the wall trained their crossbows on Theodore. “If you are who you say you are, then prove it. Otherwise, get lost.”
Theodore felt a deep unease. After longing for home for so long, it was strange to be treated like a threat. He dug through his luggage to find his citizen visa. Fritz took his time checking it for spells with an adder stone: A small rock with a hole worn through the center that you could peer through to see past magical illusions.
“No offense meant, Deputy.” Fritz handed the documents back. The archers stood down at his signal. “Can’t be too careful. The creatures will try anything.”
“It’s fine,” Theodore said, even if it was not. “Is the Captain nearby?”
“Myra?” Fritz sheathed his sword. “Yeah. She’ll be drilling the cadets. I’ll show you.”
The gate rattled shut behind them as the lieutenant led Theodore to the barracks training yard. A large archery target was propped against the far wall with a crudely drawn werewolf on it. A row of trainees took aim with crossbows. With a click and a thunk, one bolt after another sank into the werewolf’s face and chest. Theodore thought of the sweet-tempered werewolf man he met in the Whirlwood.
Myra Redriver swaggered out onto the firing range in her armor like a roguish teapot. “Ned! Gracie! You’re both dead!” She said. “Go sit down!”
“But I hit the target!” One cadet said.
Myra laughed at her. “Yeah, in the arm! You think that’s going to stop a Red Cap? You may only get one shot. Aim for vitals!”
Theodore approached, clearing his throat. “Captain? Do you have a moment?”
Myra eyeballed Theodore a moment before recognizing him. “Ah, Grayweather.” She offered him a short salute. “Glad to see the creatures haven’t skewered you yet. What brings you back to civilization?”
“I have important intelligence to report,” Theodore said. “Can we speak in private?”
“If you like.” She led him inside the barracks, where she pushed open a door left hanging open.
Theodore froze at the sight of the Captain’s office. Papers were piled and scattered across every surface without rhyme or reason. Letters, report forms, requisition requests, newspapers, knives, and accounting sheets were all mixed haphazard. Several half-eaten apples were rotting in odd corners beneath layers of dust. He winced as Myra tipped a chair over and spilled papers all over the floor to make a seat for him.
“What have you got for us, Deputy?” She said, settling into her own chair
It took all of Theodore’s strength to resist the urge to start cleaning. He took a deep breath to focus.
“I’ve uncovered what Silas Jack is planning,” he said.
Myra did a double take. “You’re joking.”
“No,” Theodore said, annoyed. “He’s forcibly conscripting creatures to build an army. He plans to seize control of the Fount in order to cut off our supply of magic.”
“Damned devil!” The Captain swung onto her feet and paced her office. “If we could find the bastard maybe we could stop it before it comes to that.”
“You can’t find him?” Theodore said. “His hideout is in Crookhole Mine.”
She jumped. “What?! Where is that? What is that?”
“It’s an old magic mine, North of Gnomes Borough.”
Myra tore through her mess until she found a map, then swept everything off of her desk to make room for it. “Show me!”
The map was less useful than Theodore would have liked. None of Oboe’s landmarks were labeled. There were vague blobs listed as “Fairies” and “Ghasts,” and little else. Theodore knew the mine was along the base of the Upside Hills, but East of a Moss Tub Lake. He pointed to where it ought to be, and Myra drew a circle around his finger.
“This is fantastic!” She said. “Those book-head wizards have been trying to scry the location for months! How did you figure this out?!”
“I…” Theodore felt strange being congratulated for achieving the impossible. “I just asked where it was.”
She stared him, baffled, before laughing out loud. “Leave it to a Grayweather to actually get something done!” She wheeled him closer to the desk. “What’s your plan?”
He blinked. “My plan?”
“Yes! Your plan!” She threw
open a locker and a pile of weapons fell out onto the floor.
“This is your jurisdiction. You’re the authority in the Whirlwood, so you’re in command of the raid. Do you need to borrow a sword?” She started piling blades onto the desk. “I remember you not having a sword for some weird reason.”
Theodore slipped out of his seat. “I want nothing to do with this. I’m quitting.”
“Quitting?” Myra frowned. “Is this a joke? You just started!”
“I’ve had enough,” Theodore said. “I’m entrusting this to you.”
Captain Redriver waited, as if still expecting the punchline of a joke. When it was clear Theodore was serious, she sighed.
“Disappointing,” she said. “I know it’s a shit post, but…” She held her tongue. “Well, at least you’ve done more for me than the last guy.” Myra flashed a smirk. “It’s fine. The Watch can handle this. Give me time to prepare and I’ll rally a strike force. We’ll swoop in and crush every last one of those Red Caps before they even know what’s happening.”
A sick feeling took root in Theodore’s gut. “Isn’t that a bit extreme? Silas is forcing innocents to fight for him. There’s no reason to kill all of them.”
“Starting to feel for the wildlife?” The Captain clapped him on the shoulder. “That’s cute, kid, but we’re talking about the safety of Laien here. The Red Caps are a disease. There’ll be no knowing who’s infected and who’s not. We’re stopping this before it spreads.”