Theodore stood on a hill overlooking the manor, surveying the inner yard through his binoculars. The farmhands had built a crude stage where Flip was performing a last-minute pre-execution sales pitch.
The Tall Man hung from a beam center stage, mouth gagged and dangling over a silver saucer filled with some sort of mercurial fluid. Theodore guessed it to be part of a dispelling ritual. Once the last ingredient was added it would light into an ethereal fire that could disperse all magic in a creature. It was a theatrical way to kill a ghast.
Waiting for the city watch to arrive wasn’t an option. Theodore needed to intervene before Flip ran out of goods to sell. He slid down the hillside and broke into a sprint. Once he was near enough to be spotted he slowed to a creep. He recalled, with reluctance, his father’s advice on avoiding detection. The homesteads provided excellent cover. Acting natural, he slipped into the gathering crowd and worked his way toward the front.
“We may have caught one killer ghast but there may yet be dozens, nay, hundreds of wicked ones yet beneath our feet!” Flip twirled towards his display of talismans with a flourish. “Did you know that someone you know is mauled by a ghast every fifteen minutes? Don’t become a statistic! Purchase while supplies last during this limited time promotion!”
Theodore spotted Pearce sitting off to the site, tapping his foot with building impatience. “I’m not paying you to hock your wares! Get on with it!”
Flip offered a smile. “All in the name of preventing another tragedy, Alderman. You should be thanking me.”
“You can sell whatever you want after the thing is dead!” Pearce said. “Hurry up!”
Theodore seized on the distraction. He climbed onto the stage and made a run for the knife.
“Hey!” A woman in the crowd pointed. “Who’s that?!”
The Alderman launched to his feet. The flimsy stage shook as he lumbered to block Theodore. Flip retreated toward the saucer. Theodore had no choice but to play his trump card now that his cover was blown.
“Halt!” He whipped a government form out from his pocket. “This public execution is in violation of due process! By the authority of the crown you will release the ghast into my custody or face steep fines!”
The crowd met Theodore with a collective blank stare. The Alderman ripped the citation out of his hand and tore it to shreds.
“Well. It was worth a shot,” Theodore said.
Pearce shoved him back. “I told you to stay out of this, pipsqueak! Get lost or I’ll make you regret it!”
Theodore pulled the crossbow from his belt and took aim. The crowd gasped.
“You are making a mistake,” Theodore said. “This execution is illegal and this creature is innocent!”
The crowd murmured in confusion. Giselle, the widow, pushed her way to the front.
“Is this some sort of joke?!” She said. “You swear to find my husband’s killer and now you tell us the creature you found didn’t do it?! My husband is dead! I will not have him mocked like this!”
“The real killer is right in front of you!” Theodore pointed. “Flip! I charge you with the murder of two Laien citizens, the abduction of countless others, the sale of illegal magic weapons, and inciting violence toward ghasts!”
Stony silence washed over the yard. The entire South Manor community turned to look at Flip, who was caught creeping toward the edge of the platform. He straightened his posture the moment he realized he was the center of attention.
“Fascinating,” Flip said. He looked past Theodore. “Alderman, I was afraid this might happen. It appears the ghast has cast a mind control spell over the Deputy.”
“What?” Pearce glanced between Theodore and Flip.
“He has spent too long around the creature without taking proper precautions,” Flip said. “He’s a thrall now and will go to any extreme to save his master. Restrain him!”
Theodore corrected his aim with the crossbow and backed away. “He’s lying! Flip used ghast magic to kill Anthony and stir up a panic! It’s all in the name of making money off you!”
“This is absurd.” Flip laughed. “How can a human use ‘ghast magic?’ Can you prove any of this?”
Theodore hesitated. “I have eyewitness accounts.”
The witch raised an eyebrow. “Who?”
“The imps you’ve been holding captive! They escaped and told me what you’ve been doing!”
“I see, I see.” Flip strolled across the stage, opening his arms toward the onlookers. “To summarize for you, ladies and gentlemen, we are being told to trust the wild accusations of a ghast as reason to let another go unpunished. Is that something you can trust?”
The whole crowd jeered and booed.
Flip banged his cane to silence the crowd. “Everyone! If we kill the ghast now, our Deputy should return to his senses within three days!”
“He is acting funny,” Pearce said. He stepped toward Theodore, eyes on the crossbow. “Just put the weapon down. We’ll fix you.”
Theodore had only a single crossbow bolt. He was surrounded and outnumbered. There was no chance of stopping them if this turned to a brawl. The only way to even the odds was to stall until the city watch arrived, but how long would that take?
“Can I have everyone’s attention?” Flip raised his cane into the air. “It’s time I gave you good people what you paid for!”
Flip revealed a vial from his breast pocket and emptied something viscous into the saucer. It sparked. Effervescent flames of violet danced over the surface. The potion boiled over the edge, hissing as it splashed against the wood.
The Tall Man squirmed over the seething liquid. His cries were muffled under his gag. Flip grabbed to pull the knife from the beam and Theodore reacted on instinct. He aimed his crossbow at the saucer and loose the bolt. Flip leapt back as the dish crashed with a clang onto the stage. The concoction spilled and ate through the stage. Purple flames licked across the wood before sputtering out.
“He’s unarmed!” Flip shouted. “Grab him!”
Theodore discarded the now useless crossbow as the Alderman wrenched him off the stage. A circle of burly farmhands took hold of him.
“Let go!” Theodore struggled to pull free. “Flip is the one you want!
Pearce stood over smoldering stage, scratching his head. “Look at this damned mess. What are we supposed to do now?”
“Not to worry.” Flip threw an arm around his patron’s broad shoulders. “There’s more than one way to kill a ghast.”