The sky faded to murky twilight. Theodore followed the instructions of the squirrel, worried he was wasting more time. Sure enough, he found himself pushing uphill into the outskirts of the Gnome Boroughs.
“A human!!” Dozens of voices shrieked in unison. Rabbits, squirrels, foxes, deer, and gnomes all scattered to hide at the sight of Theodore.
“What??” Oboe came thrashing out from the overgrowth. “No! Leave the ferals alone! Don’t hurt them!”
She froze, wide eyed when she realized who she was looking at. “…Theo?” She pursed her lips tight. She did not seem happy to see him. “You’re back? What are you doing here? I thought you left forever!”
“I…” Whatever explanation Theodore could manage slipped away. “What’s happened? I heard the Watch launched a raid on the Red Caps.”
Oboe glared at him. “A whole herd of knights poured out of the train a few hours ago. They stomped up through the North side and chased everybody out of the mine.”
A familiar gnome peeked out from its hiding spot. “It’s you!” Lemmy said, and pulled himself up onto a rock. “It’s okay everybody! This human won’t hurt you!”
A few skittish ferals crept out of hiding, but most remained skeptical.
“What’s with all these animals?” Theodore asked.
“They’re the Red Cap ferals.” Lemmy said. “Oboe brought them here.”
“Silas just left them behind.” Oboe folded her arms. “I had to help them hide! The knights want to kill them!”
Theodore was baffled. “Why would he abandon any of his forces?”
Oboe motioned for him to follow. She led her through the foliage, away from other creatures, to the cliffside she’d shown him before. She pointed off into the distance. There was a camp, set up by the Watch, surrounding the Fount and lit up with bright red bonfires.
“Silas wants to hold the Fount,” she said. “He took all the ghasts and fairies who’d follow, but he left the ferals. They’re like humans. They can’t breathe magic. I guess he thinks the knights won’t pounce while they’re down there.”
Silas went through with his plan after all. It looked hopeless for the Red Caps. They were holed up in a pit, while Myra surrounded them with barricades along the higher ground.
Theodore grimaced. “Silas doesn’t stand a chance. He’s outnumbered, bad. Captain Redriver is likely waiting for enough breathing masks to stage an assault. There’s going to be a massacre.”
Oboe tugged at the hair on her arms, watching as the stage was set below them. “This is what you wanted, right?” She looked Theodore, and narrowed her eyes.“The knights are going to slay everybody. Did you come back to watch them die?”
“No!” Theodore said, horrified.
The sun set. The shadows deepened, but Oboe’s eyes were bright in the dark. Behind her, the bonfires burned and smoke climbed into the sky. “Then why did you come back?”
“I…” Theodore hesitated. For the first time, Oboe looked the part of myth. She was a fey creature, something other, one of the wild things that once preyed on mankind in the time before the treaties. He remembered the wicked nymph in the caves so many years ago, how she argued with the werewolf for the right to hurt him. He stared into Oboe’s face, his heart wrenching at the memory of the swing of his father’s sword. He remembered the spray of feathers and a dying scream. He remembered the sight of the body, and feeling sorry that she was dead.
“I made a mistake,” Theodore said. “You were right. You need a Ranger deputy. I should not have left, and I can’t let this happen. I need your help to stop this.”
“My help?” Oboe was taken off guard. “What can someone like me do?”
“Stop that,” Theodore said. “I know you’re capable. If you can rescue the ferals, you can help me stop this. I can’t do this without you.”
Her gaze lowered, then hardened into a look of determination. “What do you need me to do?”
“I can’t afford to get lost, and you know how to navigate,” Theodore said. He stepped toward the edge of the cliff and pointed at the Fount. “Can you take me there?”
She stepped up, peering out, shaking just a little bit. “Yeah?”
She tightened her lips. “Yes.” She said.
“Then let’s go,” Theodore said.
“Okay.” She grabbed Theodore by the wrist and leapt off the cliff.