In the quiet after the battle, the knights collected the wounded. Fritz, whose body was still paralyzed by magic, had to be hefted aboard like a sculpture by a team of watchmen. Theodore assisted by carrying the armor of a man who had been transformed into a field mouse. Once the last of the vines and roots had been cleared away, the train rumbled back to life and carried them deeper into the Whirlwood.
The medic surveyed the damage to the men. “The creatures are getting bolder.” He was a freckled old wizard tasked with undoing the spells and mending wounds. “Or you all are getting sloppy. Six knights enchanted? And you got yourself elf-shot. This will be an embarrassing report!”
“Shut up!” Fritz said. The knights had propped him up against a window. “If you bathrobes had been on the job, this wouldn’t have happened!”
“Hold still.” The medic said. He moved to place his hand on Fritz’s shoulder, but hesitated. “That was a joke, lad. You ought to laugh.”
Fritz sneered. “Ha. Ha.” There was a pop of magic and Fritz toppled over, his enchantment broken.
“What was that creature?” Theodore said, helping Fritz into his seat.
“Silas Jack,” Myra said. She was cutting wedges off a hunk of cheese and handing it out to her men. “He’s a ghast. Y’know, the sort of devils we used to go to war before the peace treaties. Not that those mean much to the likes of him. He’s talked a whole mess of creatures into going wicked. They call themselves the Red Caps.”
Theodore waved away the offered snack. He felt sick, wondering how long he stood to survive in this savage place. “He coordinated an assault and ambush. We could have been killed!””
The captain popped the cheese into her mouth and chewed. “It’s fine. I’ll die of embarrassment before that uppity spook gets the best of us.” She glanced out the window as the train carriage ground to a halt, the engine wheezing one last gasp of spent magic. “We’re here.”
The station platform overlooked the valley floor from a ridge. Below, the woods parted to reveal a deep quarry carved out with pits and ravines. This was the Fount: a wellspring of wild magic so rich it was the envy of all other kingdoms. Theodore peered down, and marveled. Layers of flowing, shimmering gas swirled in each well like a miasma. His eyes and nostrils stung trying to perceive it, to try and tell its color or shape even from this distance. It was invisible, yet so thick and concentrated it bordered on the edge of tangible. Around him, sorcerers and university interns strapped on protective smocks and breathing masks and set to work collecting the harvest.
Fritz joined him, rolling his still-stiff shoulder. “You ever see them gather it before?”
Theodore shook his head. “I’ve only read about it. From what I understand, we leave hermetic inverter modules down there to soak up the thaumaturgic radiation. Once it’s concentrated, it calcifies into crystals which can be purified for safe use by human sorcerers.”
“Alright, nerd,” Fritz said. “I learned to swing a sword so I didn’t have to think about any of that. Here’s a secret: only thing you need to know is that it makes things go, and that means money.”
Fritz started coughing, and moved away from the ridge to escape the magic soaked air.
“It’s more than just that!” Theodore said. “It’s a marvel of engineering. Do you know how much more cost effective this is than digging up fossilized magic? Laien owes its prosperity to this technology, and it’s all thanks to research conducted by the university!”
Theodore realized, with a flash of embarrassment, that the Lieutenant was laughing at him.
“Whatever you say,” Fritz said. “Just keep in mind that all this fancy tech wouldn’t do anyone any good if it weren’t for people like you and me keeping the bathrobes safe.”
Theodore frowned. Nothing said it had to be him. There were others better suited to the work.
“You about ready?” Fritz said. “Captain has me on orders to walk you to your office, and I’d like to get that done before the train leaves.”
Theodore took a deep breath. “Let’s go.”